Wood Bison Versus Plains Buffalo

Wood Bison Versus Plains Buffalo

Wood Buffalo bulls tend to be taller and more square at the hump than Plains Buffalo. Historically, they lived in the boreal forests of Northern Canada and Alaska where snow is deep and long-lasting. Parks Canada.

Wood Bison are the largest land mammal in North America.

Adult males stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder and measure 10 feet long.

 This is about one-third larger than the Plains Buffalo.

The Wood Buffalo are also considerably heavier.

Parks Canada maintains a bison weight database going back to 1956.

 During all that time, the records show only one Plains Bison bull that weighed more than a ton (2000 pounds or 909 kg).

 At the same time–when fully grown—one-third of the Wood Bison bulls exceeded this weight.

 Wood Buffalo females are considerably smaller than bulls, generally weighing around 1,200 pounds.

 Wood Bison are about 15 percent heavier than Plains Bison.

Original distribution of Wood Bison during the last 5,000 years (stippled). Based on available zooarcheological and paleontological evidence and oral and written accounts. Parks Canada.

Scientists say the larger size is an adaptation to the more extremely long-lasting and cold climate of the far north.

 Historically, Wood Bison range extends through the boreal forests of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and much of the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska, as in the above map.

 Boreal forests are defined as forests growing in high-latitude environments where freezing temperatures occur for 6 to 8 months and in which trees are capable of reaching a minimum height of 5 m and a canopy cover of 10 percent.

 The Wood Bison is often distinguished by his taller, more box-like hump that has its highest point well ahead of his front legs.

 Parks Canada suggests this kind of hump has evolved in the Wood Bison to support a more massive muscle structure that helps them sweep their head through deep northern snows to provide more access to the grasses and sedges beneath the snow in a long winter.

 By contrast, the highest point of the Plains Bison’s hump is directly above the front legs, with the hump more smoothly rounded.

 This accomplishes the same result—as a structure to sweep away snow. However, the snow tends not be as deep, long-lasting and formidable in their usual range as that which hits farther north.

 Below are noted distinctions between Wood Buffalo and Plains Buffalo as presented by Parks Canada.

The highest point of the hump is well forward of the front legs on Wood Bison. Cape blends smoothly toward the rear. Parks Canada, used with permission.

WOOD BISON 

  • Highest point of hump well forward of front legs
  • Virtually no chaps on front legs
  • A thin scraggly beard
  • Neck mane short, does not extend much below chest
  • Cape grades smoothly back towards the loins with little if any demarcation
  • Forelock lies forward in long strands over forehead
  • Hair usually darker, especially on head

Smoother, more rounded hump, centered over front legs. More pronounced cape ends at shoulder. Parks Canada.

PLAINS BISON 

  • Highest point of hump is directly over the front legs
  • Large thick chaps on front legs
  • Thick pendulous beard
  • Full neck mane extends below the chest
  • Sharply demarcated cape line behind the shoulder
  • Thick bonnet of hair between the horns
  • Cape usually lighter in color
  • About one-third smaller than a Wood Bison

 In addition to size and hump distinctions the differences between Wood and Plains Bison can be separated into pelage and structural characteristics.

 The Wood Bison is distinguished by darker color, absence of chap hair on the front legs, and a less distinct, but darker cape of the shoulders, hump, and neck region that grades smoothly back onto the loins.

 They have a thin pointy beard; shorter and less dense hair on the top of the head, around the horns, and beard. A skimpy neck mane and longer and more heavily haired tail.

 Their head is large and triangular, with large shoulders and long dark brown and black hair around head and neck.

 Males possess short, thick, black horns that end in an upward curve, while females have thinner, more curved horns.

 Wood Bison vocalizations are also different from the sounds made by Plains Bison. And the Wood Bison’s social interactions during the rut tend to be less violent.

 Hardy from birth, Wood Bison calves can stand when they are only 30 minutes old and run alongside their mothers within hours of birth.

 Plains Bison tend to have hair character which is lighter, larger and more obvious—with more variation in color. A yellow-ochre cape spreads over the shoulders and ends with noticeable separation in texture and color.

 They grow a thick bonnet of hair between the horns, covering the lower horns, and a full neck mane extending below the chest.

 The Plains Bison sport a full beard and large chaps on the front legs, and the tail is short and thin.

 For their part, the National Park Service in the United States offered these 2 sketches in a Bison Bellows feature in April 2018.

Wood Buffalo sketch reveals differences with Plains Buffalo. Courtesy van Zyll de Jong et al. NPS.

Wood Buffalo 

  • Highest point of hump forward of front legs
  • More abrupt change of contour along back
  • Tail longer and more heavily haired
  • Penis sheath tuft shorter and thinner
  • Horns clear of hair cover
  • Hair on forehead lower and longer
  • Neck region longer than in Plains Bison
  • Absence of chaps

Plains Buffalo sketch shows more long hair cover in front parts of animal. Courtesy van Zyll de Jong et al. NPS

Plains Buffalo 

  • Highest point of hump over front legs
  • Declining back slope
  • Tail shorter and thinner
  • Penis sheath tuft longer and thicker
  • Horn often covered by dense hairs
  • Yellow-ochre cape
  • Sharp separation from cape in texture and color
  • Chaps (skirt)
  • Larger beard 

Two Subspecies Recognized

Wood Buffalo prefer boreal forests of Canada. They are largest land mammal in North America. Parks Canada.

Modern American buffalo are identified in 2 subspecies well suited to their respective environments.

 The prolific Plains Buffalo grazed throughout the open country and the shy Wood Buffalo clustered in small groups in forest and mountain terrain, especially favoring the far north.

 Under scientific classification, the American Plains Buffalo is listed as genus Bison, species bison bison, and subspecies Bison bison bison.

 The Wood Buffalo is Bison bison athabascae, named for an Indian word, a lake.

 “Athabascae” recognizes the Cree native name for the large Lake Athabasca and surrounding watershed in Canada. Athap-ask-a-w means grass or reeds here and there.

Drawing of Wood Bison (top) and Plains Bison (bottom) bulls during summer at Elk Island National Park, Saskatchewan. Sketch courtesy of Wes Olson.

 Interestingly, early scientists of the 19th century marked these differences and gave the two subspecies their scientific names.

 It was thought that Wood Buffalo were “the finest specimens of their species, superior in pelage, size, and vigor to those of the Plains whose descendants today exist in our parks.”

 Then came a time of debate. Many argued the differences were not genetic, but simply a function of the environment where they live.

 However, a large-scale study in the early 1990s analyzed Canadian data and found the two subspecies maintain their respective traits regardless of where they live and what they eat.

 More recent research at the University of Alberta reveals genetic differences, thus supporting those early scientists. Sufficient difference was found between Wood Bison and Plains Bison, it was thought, to warrant two different subspecies names.

Yet scientists have discussed through the years whether the two subspecies are simply ecotypes.

 In other words, if Wood Bison were placed in Plains Bison habitat, or vice versa, might they eventually assume the traits of typical Bison there, simply due to environmental pressures? 

 Subspecies Still Questioned

 Science, of course, is always open to revision.

 Not all scientists agree with the subspecies designation.

 One who disagrees is Matthew Cronin, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor of animal genetics. He is based at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer.

 In 2013, Dr. Cronin and colleagues studied 65 Wood Bison from 3 herds and 136 Plains Bison from 9 herds in Alaska, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New York, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, along with a database of differing cattle breeds.

 The Cronin findings are published in the online May 10, 2013 issue of the Journal of Heredity. http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/05/09/jhered.est030.abstract?sid=6fde43b1-288b-4d53-adae-61cc2628db1e

 Cronin pointed out that the term subspecies denotes a formal category and that evolutionary history is a primary criterion for subspecies designation.

 For instance, European cattle and tropical cattle have separate origins, are genetically distinct and thus have a scientifically supported subspecies designation, he says.

 “This creates a paradox for biologists because subspecies can be designated by one author, rejected by another and still others reject the entire subspecies ranking.”

 He contends that Wood and Plains Bison originally had ranges adjacent to each other, rather than separate origins.

 Therefore they should be considered differing geographic populations, not subspecies.

 He notes that some Plains Bison are more genetically different from each other than they are from Wood Bison.

 Despite Cronin’s evidence, Parks Canada and conservation groups in Alaska operate under the guideline that Wood Bison are a distinct and separate subspecies and ideally, should not be hybridized with Plains Bison.

 Spokesperson Cathy Rezabek says that US Fish and Wildlife contends the two groups of bison are separate.

 “We based our finding on the scientific information available, which indicated that there has been historical physical separation in their ranges, as well as behavioral and physical differences and genetic differences. “

“Worth preserving whether or not they are formally recognized as a subspecies.” At Elk Island Park the two subspecies are kept separate.

In this light, bison conservationists agree on several things, she noted:

 1) Multiple morphological and genetic characteristics distinguish Plains Bison from Wood Bison;

 2) Wood Bison and Plains Bison continue to be morphologically and genetically distinct, despite some historic forced hybridization; and thus

 3) Wood Bison constitute a subspecies of bison, and therefore, should be managed on a par with Plains Bison.

 An eminent Canadian wildlife biologist once observed that “debating taxonomy does not absolve humans of the responsibility to protect intra-specific diversity as the raw material of evolution.”

 Another suggests that the Wood Bison population is in a class by itself, “Worth preserving whether or not they are formally recognized as a subspecies.”

 Therefore, park authorities keep separate the two subspecies to retain their natural traits.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Harvey Wallbanger, racing buffalo

Harvey Wallbanger, racing buffalo

Meet Harvey Wallbanger, a formidable sprinting buffalo seen on racetracks of the 1980’s and ‘90s across America, Canada and Mexico, here ridden to a win by his owner and trainer Collin ‘TC’ Thorstenson.

Harvey was an orphan buffalo who thought he was a horse, according to his owner, trainer and jockey Collin ‘TC’ Thorstenson and many fascinated spectators who watched him race.

Thorstenson said he was raised on a Sioux Indian reservation in the hills of North Dakota, was always fond of animals and trained small pets as a youngster.

He drove coal trucks in Wyoming and became a jockey and trainer.

Harvey’s story began in 1980 when his mother was shot by a poacher.

TC, who at that time worked on the Milwaukee Railroad, rescued the orphaned buffalo

Thorstenson kept the little guy in his car and bottle-fed him several times a day—whenever he took a break.

He was just 35 pounds back then, and I fed him by a bottle until he was a year and a half,” he said.

“I carried him in the back of my car until he got to be about 250 pounds.”

As Harvey graduated to living in a barn, he followed Thorstenson around like a dog.

But when TC left the young buffalo alone in the barn, he was not happy. When he grew restless he kicked and slammed his body at the divider wall of his stall.

“I named him Harvey Wallbanger because he was always banging his body against the wall of the pen,” said Thorstenson.

As he grew to full size, his owner rigged a kind of saddle to fit and climbed on.

Harvey took well to being ridden and the two began performing at rodeos.

“I named him Harvey Wallbanger because he was always banging his body against the wall of his pen,” said Thorstenson, who rescued the orphan when he was just 35 pounds and fed him from a bottle until he was a year and a half.

Audiences loved him and by 1985 their interest was enough to get Harvey invited to race at Energy Downs in Gillette, Wyoming.

Harvey Wallbanger made his 6-year-old racing debut under the name “TC and Harvey” in a 110-yard exhibition race against a quarter horse on a real racetrack.

He competed against a horse that was bred for speed and less than half his weight.

Harvey won the race by 2½ lengths and that’s where the legend began.
“It was a great attraction for race tracks because it got young, more enthusiastic, kids out there to watch him do his thing,” Thorstenson said.

Next they travelled to Miles City, Montana, and raced for the second time.

Harvey’s Natural Desire was to Win

Harvey would burst through the starting gate, lean toward the rail and run along it as hard as he could to the finish line.

Thorstenson’s buffalo had a natural desire to win.

Harvey was a tight fit in the starting gate. But he became well-known for his knack of charging out of the gate fast, as well as his tenacity at the finish. As TC told the crowds, “He’s a ton of fun and he thinks he’s a horse.”

TC told the Farm Show in 1989 that about half his audience came to see a buffalo. “The other half came to see Harvey win.”

Most people had never seen a buffalo, and Harvey was one of the only racing buffalos of his time.

“There are two or three other trained buffalo in North America, but Harvey is the only one that races competitively,” TC explained.

“A buffalo’s wild instincts make it difficult to break, and not all of them are trainable.

“Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns. I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey.”

Harvey enjoyed great racing success in America, Canada and Mexico. His best year was in 1990, when he ran in 20 races and earned $108,000. He won 79 races in 93 starts running against quarter horses, thoroughbreds and harness racers.

His best race was the 110-yard race. He covered the distance in 10.14 seconds. Usually it was an exhibition race with no betting allowed.

Because of his size, snorting and unique smell, most competing horses were afraid to get near him, so he had an advantage running alone there on the rail.

Harvey Wallbanger was led into the starting gate on a 40-foot rope.

As the flashy showman, Thorstenson waved his cowboy hat as he rode into the chute.

“It’s tight,” he said. “But he’ll fit if he inhales on the way in and exhales on the way out.

“Most horses get nervous when they see the buffalo because of his quick movements and unusual sounds, so Harvey usually runs on the rail.”

Electrifying speed out of the gate was his secret weapon

Weighing in at over a ton, he was a pleasure to watch.

As TC told the audience, “He’s a ton of fun and he thinks he’s a horse.”

Skeptics cast Doubt

Some in the stands questioned the quality of Harvey’s competition and the actual integrity of his races. They suggested that the horses let Harvey win on purpose.

One writer charged that “Harvey travelled with horses he could outrun. I think the wrangler brought 3 with him to Portland.”

Another wrote, “The Jockey is holding that horse back! Cool story—but I very much doubt that bison ever beat a good healthy horse.”

On another day a journalist sympathized with Harvey’s loss.

“I watched one of Harvey’s races from 1988, where he was racing two quarter horses. Although he tried, he just never got that load moving and he lost,” he wrote.

“It was bizarre to see a 1-ton monster chugging down the lane, and it just wasn’t a very pretty race, no matter how you looked at it.”

 Other sports writers defended Harvey’s racing style.

“Watched this race at Thistledown in North Randall. GREAT MEMORY!” One reported.

 “I saw this race, it was at Golden Gate Fields, late 70s early 80s or so. Buffalos are FAST,” wrote another.

“I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey,” said trainer TC Thorstenson. “Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns.”

 

Sometimes Harvey raced against Thorstenson’s own horses, but he also raced against full tracks of quarter horses.

Pete Monaco, writing sports for The Spectrum, wrote this about Harvey Wallbanger in a story written after his death, titled The Eighth Pole on Aug 18, 2018.

“Being a racing buffalo, Harvey automatically captured the attention of most people—but he also captured their hearts.

“TC seemed to have his hands full before, during and even after the race. To claim the fix was in, concerning a non-wagering event that involved a buffalo seems a bit ridiculous.”

Added Monaco, “I did watch another race

where I swear he stretched his neck out at the wire to win by a long buffalo nose over three horses in a photo finish!

“All contestants were within a half-length of each other at the finish, and Harvey dug in gamely on the rail to get the victory.

“This race was actually a beautiful thing. And I might’ve watered up a bit from the effort of this animal on that day,” he confessed.

End of a Promising Career

Small cowgirl offers up a kiss for Harvey, the racing buffalo, at a wild west event put on by Thorstenson

TC moved to Arizona and became a regular with his buffalo showing up at Arizona Rattlers Arena Football League games.

Unfortunately, Harvey’s career ended abruptly at the age of 13.

In 1991 he died after eating contaminated hay in Tuscon, Arizona.

TC was devastated and sued Kenny and Jimmy Murdock, who furnished feed for the rodeo.

In court the Murdocks conceded that oleander, a decorative and poisonous bush, probably got mixed in with the hay.

TC won his case and was awarded $475,000 in damages.

He started over by training a young buffalo he called Harvey Wallbanger Junior.

“My buffalo aren’t just buffalo,” he said. “They are family members.”

But Junior wasn’t interested in winning. He refused to grab the rail or run hard to stay ahead of the race horses.

However, he found his niche acting in movies and commercials and promoting rodeos and sporting events around the nation for a time.

But Junior also died too soon—of a virus that is unique in affecting American bison from infected sheep.

Thorstenson married Times newspaper heiress Margaret Lesher in 1996, when she grew  enamoured with the flamboyant cowboy showman.  

Together they purchased a Scottsdale ranch, where he kept a small herd of buffalo, and dealt in real estate in Arizona.

 

“He is the buffalo stuntman who rides a 2,800-pound beast through rings of fire. He’s the mounted shooter with the arena behind the Roadhouse saloon,” according to one sports report.

 

Unfortunately, Lesher drowned during a camping trip, which cast some suspicion for a time on her new husband, who was much younger.

TC moved to the upscale town of Cave Creek, where he attempted to bring a Western venue that would feature events such as mounted shooting, barrel racing and other western events.

His efforts finally came to fruition with the opening of a Western restaurant, bar and venue he called Hogs and Horses.

In his new digs, TC Thorstenson was described thus:

“He is the buffalo stuntman who rides a 2,800-pound beast through rings of fire. He’s the mounted shooter with the arena behind the Roadhouse saloon.

“He’s a horse whisperer to some, a drinking buddy to others and, as the local newspaper tells it, he is ‘rapidly becoming a Cave Creek land baron.’

“On a warm Tuesday night in April, he works the crowd in woolly chaps and a stars-and-stripes western shirt.

“He holds a revolver on his belt, a buffalo on a rein and a wide grin across his face as he poses at a living history attraction west of town.

“Now it’s Thursday, and he’s on stage, nominated for local ‘Horse Hero’ of 2007.

“Come Saturday, it’s up in the saddle for the annual Fiesta Days parade. He hoists an American flag on a pole as he clops past the Horny Toad saloon and its knowing rival, the Satisfied Frog.

“’Check it out, folks! There’s a shooting match after the parade, behind the Roadhouse,’ he announces. ‘Come and watch it!’ ”

On a warm night in April, Thorstenson worked the crowd in woolly chaps and a spangled western shirt. “He holds a revolver on his belt, a buffalo on a rein and a wide grin across his face as he poses at a living history attraction west of town,” according to one reporter.

He once sponsored a ‘Running with the Bulls-U.S.A.,’ a tamer version of Pamplona, Spain’s annual nine-day festival of San Fermin.

Ever the showman, TC continued to train and show buffalo.

His favorite, Harvey had enjoyed great success in America, Canada and Mexico.

His best year was in 1990, when he ran in 20 races and earned $108,000.

He won 79 races in 93 starts running against all comers—quarter horses, thoroughbreds and harness racers.

Unfortunately, TC never again found a buffalo with a genuine desire to win his race—who could take the place of his beloved Harvey Wallbanger.

“I could have trained 40 good horses during the time I spent training Harvey,” said trainer TC Thorstenson. “Even Harvey may never be completely trustworthy. Buffalo are strong enough to flip a horse off the ground and kill it with their sharp horns.”

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Low-Stress Buffalo Handling

Low-Stress Buffalo Handling

We’ve reported stories to you in this space about the early days of hard-riding buffalo wranglers running half-wild buffalo. Some amusing. Some tragic.

Often, they rounded-up and stampeded buffalo into makeshift corrals and loaded them into boxcars in some of the roughest ways possible, even dragging them at the end of several ropes.

At the time, it seemed to men who were used to working cattle like the only way to get the job done was to run the buffalo hard, and stay ahead of them.

Hard-riding cowboys in the early days tried to chase buffalo as they did cattle. In this early 1900’s photo Michel Pablo’s wranglers tried to outrun the buffalo, with mixed results. Today’s buffalo ranchers understand that low-stress livestock handling is far more successful than the tough old cowboy techniques. Montana Historical Society.

I know this has been painful for some of our readers. You visualized all too clearly how violently the wild buffalo were sometimes treated. You mourned that some buffalo in their extreme panic simply died a sudden death.

Buffalo are powerful animals and it was also dangerous for the people handling them. Many riders and horses have been injured or even killed.

In the early days of buffalo ranching, hard-riding cowboys expected these half-wild animals to respond like the cattle that they are not.

When they didn’t, they probably shouted louder, swung their ropes higher and ran the animals harder.

I think you’ll be happy to know that today buffalo are not handled that way.

With buffalo, owners have learned to do the job the buffalo’s way—or get little or nothing accomplished.

As Tim Frasier, buffalo consultant, says, “Bison producers, by and large, are extremely conscious of humane protocol because the species dictates that the producer work with them.”

Ranchers and buffalo managers have learned that buffalo are like wild animals—subject to flight or fight reactions when startled or pushed too hard.

In important ways they are still the undomesticated wild animals they’ve always been. They need to be handled more delicately than cattle.

Imagine Handling Wild Deer

Think about chasing wild deer. How would you go about chasing a herd of 3 or 4 mule deer through a gate out of an alfalfa field?

We certainly wouldn’t use the old-style cowboy tactics—just running them hard toward the gate—would we?

I think our goal instinctively would be to not crowd them—stay back. To move quietly, so as not alarm them. Allow them time to decide how to respond.

Knowing that if we rush them, some of the deer are going to lunge for the fence—over or under, or slam bang into it.

I’m no expert, but have done considerable reading on the topic, as well as trailed a lot of cows.

So let’s go to the experts to learn how to keep buffalo stress levels low.

Instead of running at the deer, it would make sense to hang back and give them time to decide. Maybe then they’d take the easy way—and just trot out through the open gate.

Low Stress Handling

The most important trait for the buffalo handler is calmness, experts say. Establish yourself at the top of the pecking order in a calm and confident way.

For the new buffalo owner or herd manager, whether of a small or large herd, there’s plenty to learn in raising these amazing, magnificent animals.

The modern way of handling buffalo fascinates new owners and old hands alike. With roots in “horse-whispering” techniques, it’s called low-stress livestock handling.

The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the animals content and unafraid.

Buffalo may seem docile, but Grandin says to watch for signs of fear. The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the buffalo content and unafraid, trusting their handlers. NPS.

Fearful buffalo cause great risk both to themselves and humans, warns Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-known expert on animal behavior in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, Ft Collins.

She’s a scientist who understands autism and applies some of the related philosophy in her work.

Dr. Temple Grandin, well-known expert on animal behavior in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, Ft Collins, uses her experience with autism in understanding fear and stress in working livestock. CSU.

As wild animals, she explains, buffalo are always on the alert for danger, and ready to respond with fight or flight. When alarmed, fear shoots adrenaline through their system and they are ready to react.

People who work with buffalo need to watch for signals of fear, Grandin says. The first subtle signs are licking, blinking, huddling, a raised tail, circular movement—milling—backing up and balking.

As fear and panic increase, so do signs such as hard breathing, frothing at the mouth, vocalizing, bulging eyes, running, pushing, goring, attacking, sitting, jumping or scrambling free of their enclosure.

The last stage of fear is immobility, lying down without responding to stimuli or prodding.

Paying close attention to these signals and responding appropriately teaches buffalo what behavior is wanted. Then they need the opportunity to do it willingly, Grandin says.

The key to helping buffalo understand this is skilled use of their comfort or flight zone, according to Mark Kossler, manager of the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico, writing in the most recemt Bison Producers’ Handbook, published by the National Bison Association.

“The gentle dance of us applying pressure, the animal moving away from the pressure and us releasing the pressure, is the main method of getting our animals to move for us in a low stress manner,” Kossler tells buffalo ranchers.

“This sets up a positive cause and effect relationship. That is, we get into their flight zone putting pressure on them, and they, by moving away from us get released from the pressure.”

The flight zone is the personal space of a buffalo and may differ somewhat for each animal.

An alarm goes off in its brain when someone enters that personal space. The optimal handler position is at the boundary of that zone. This allows him or her to manipulate the animal in a low stress manner.

In moving buffalo, another sensitive place is the balance point at their shoulder.

Movement behind the shoulder causes the animal to go forward. Ahead of that point and it typically moves back.

What causes high stress, Kossler warns, is “putting pressure on them and never releasing it. Or worse, no matter what they do, continually increasing the pressure.”

Too much pressure and the buffalo panics. If unable to escape, he will fight ferociously.

Low stress means handlers work quietly and smoothly.

Former cattlemen have learned what not to do with their buffalo: stop yelling, moving fast or erratically, following a rushed schedule, or “forcing” the buffalo. Instead, they give them time to think it over and respond calmly.

Grandin recommends that the crowding pen should never be filled more than 1/3 full at any given time. By providing sufficient room, the bison are able to maintain their dominant order relative to one another. This reduces stress and intra-herd conflicts.

“When bison are tightly confined with other bison, their fear manifests as aggression in the form of goring and pushing those around them. Bison that are to be held in close proximity to other bison should be held with similar bison of the same age and gender.”

On the other hand, buffalo are herd animals and fear being alone in a pen.

A page from the Alberta 4-H Leaders Bison Guide makes a clear point: As a herd animal the buffalo fears being alone.

Grandin also points out, “The first experience an animal has in a new situation is the foundation for subsequent behaviors in similar situations. If the first time a bison enters a squeeze chute—bad things happen to him, he will be reluctant to re-enter.”

“But if the first few times he enters, the experience is neutral or positive, he will be more inclined to reenter the chute.

Only one buffalo at a time in the chute leading up to the headgate avoids pileups. Then work bison quietly and release them quickly, say experts. Parks Canada.

“Likewise, if the last experience the animal has just prior to leaving a facility is positive, such as receiving a highly palatable food reward, the animal will be more receptive to being worked the next time.”

If the handler tries to get buffalo to move by electric shock, yelling, or arm waving, which are all at the extreme end of the pressure gradient, warns Grandin, the bison will immediately become fearful. This fear results in a traumatic experience for the bison and often the handler.

Because of their ability to hear higher and lower frequencies than humans, she suggests that subtle sounds are often effective to move animals forward. The best are novel noises; a rustling newspaper or plastic bag, snapping of the fingers, pennies in an aluminum can, or a shh, shh sound.

Livestock handlers have learned a lot from Grandin, says Clint Peck, Director, Director, Beef Quality Assurance at Montana State University, Bozeman.

 “There’s not a rancher in this country that isn’t aware of her work. We have all been influenced by Temple. There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner.”

Because of her work and her perseverance, the beef industry looks very different today than it did 30 years ago, says Peck.

Buffalo handlers are especially following the Grandin techniques today, because they understand that her methods work far better than the tough old cowboy ways of forcing the buffalo.

Temple Grandin has researched, written extensively and developed workshops, teaching her low-stress methods to livestock handlers for more than 30 years. CSU.

Mark Kossler, manager of the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico, writing in the most recent, 2015 edition of the Bison Producers’ Handbook, published by the National Bison Association, warns that “Handling problems may have more to do with how people approach and try to control them than with the livestock themselves.

“Could it be that we are the root problem with poor handling and performing livestock?”

“Low-stress livestock handling should create an environment, in facilities and handling methods that keep animals mentally calm, content and unafraid,” he suggests.

Its essence is handling buffalo in such a way that suits them and keeps them “mentally intact.”

Low-stress methods keep them from becoming “mentally fractured”—which results in wild, erratic and often aggressive behavior.

This involves, he writes, developing an environment on the ranch that “responds to what the animals show us they need.”

Buffalo are continually communicating with us by what they do or don’t do, but are we listening? he asks.

“Do we manage and handle our animals in such a way that we minimize the stress they experience or do we manage and handle our animals in way that increase their stress?”

Stress occurs, he says, when we place demands on buffalo that they can’t calmly meet or respond to naturally. “This has undesirable consequences that include poor animal performance, aggressive behavior, death loss, injuries, increased disease and health problems, increased handler stress and economic loss.”

Buffalo people know it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the buffalo, and respond to their actions in helpful ways.

Dave Carter, long-time director of the National Bison Association, who runs his own buffalo herd, puts it this way, “Through the years, these magnificent animals have taught us a lot.

“Every day spent with bison will provide great insight and understanding.”

The goal is to develop a calm herd, with the buffalo content and unafraid, trusting their owners and understanding their signals and movements.

This is accomplished by establishing yourself at the top of the pecking order in a calm and confident way, being relaxed and consistent—never pushing too hard.

Patricia F. Lee, Lee Buffalo Farms, BSU of Ill, Attica, Indiana, says generally buffalo are quite docile but can change in an instant. They may appear to be sluggish, but are really extremely active.

They can outrun and outmaneuver a horse. They can jump a standard woven wire fence with 2 barbed wires on top from a complete stand still. And they can charge through most any fence and tear it down, if they really want to.

Buffalo today are in a semi-domesticated process, but still cannot be fully trusted, says Lee.

They retain all their natural instincts for survival—and when crowded panic into a “fight or flight” response.

Owners say a buffalo bull can turn in an instant, outmaneuver a horse, jump a woven wire fence with 2 barbed wires on top from a complete stand still or charge through a tight-looking fence and smash it down.

Livestock handlers have learned a lot from Grandin, says Clint Peck, Director, Beef Quality Assurance at Montana State University, Bozeman in 2011.

“There’s not a rancher in this country that isn’t aware of her work. We have all been influenced by Temple. There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner.”

Because of her work and her perseverance, the beef industry looks very different today than it did 30 years ago, he says.

Most especially, buffalo breeders are following the Dr. Grandin handling techniques today—they find her methods work far better than the tough old cowboy methods.

Dr. Grandin has spent her career looking at the beef industry through the eyes of a cow. She has laid down in muddy corrals, crawled through metal chutes, and even stood in the stun boxes where factory workers deliver their fatal blows.

“There is no question her work has helped us all understand more about our animals and how to handle them in a caring and humane manner,” writes Peck.

Her methods have become even more important in the Bison industry, in which she notes that the problems in handling these “large, skittish animals . . .range from stampeding to intra-herd aggression to ‘suicide.’”

Her studies, she writes, have “focused on bison behavior during handling in squeeze chutes, alleys, holding pens and trucks”

Kossler lists 8 foundational principles to work on to develop one’s buffalo ranch into a low-stress operation.

  1. Realize that it is our fault, not theirs, if our livestock live in a high stress environment. We need to change how we operate to affect a better outcome for them. Our attitudes towards our animals and philosophies of animal management will have to change, as they are just operating the best they can in the environment we provide for them. 
  1. Consistently use signals that livestock can respond to naturally so they can understand our meaning or what we want them to do.  Get consistent in how we move our bison in the pasture, from pasture to pasture or in the corral.  Realize that if they become unsettled or emotionally fractured, it is caused by something we did.  Analyze the feedback we are getting from our stock–this is how they are communicating with us.  If we are not getting the desired feedback, then we are the problem and need to change what we are doing.  
  1. Apply only the amount of pressure needed to get the desired response, not an ounce more! 
  1. Stop “forcing” our bison to do what we want.  Replace force with consistent sound handling principles that allow them to learn what we want and gives them opportunity to do it willingly. 
  1. Stop doing things that cause immediate “high stress” in our bison such as yelling; moving fast and erratically; not giving them time to think, analyze and respond. Or putting continued unrelenting pressure on them with no release. 
  1. Stop having a definite schedule when working with our bison. We need to realize that our “schedule” puts pressure on us that is often transferred to our bison, which causes its own problems. In working with animals, not every day is the same and how we approach it often affects the outcome. If we are on edge and in a hurry, the animals will pick up on this and react accordingly. 
  1. Start thinking from the bison’s point of view—getting on the “other side of the horns.” Spend time thinking about what we do with our bison and how it may look or feel from their perspective. If we can get inside them and see what we do through their eyes, it well may change how we do things.  
  1. If one approach does not work, even if it did yesterday, try another. Conditions are constantly changing and we need to account for that with our method and approach.  Be flexible in what we do and how we do it.

He suggests that learning the techniques will take some reading, research, and lessons from those who know how to do it.

Tim Frasier of Frasier Bison LLC is a bison rancher, consulting specialist, marketer and bison-operations design specialist. He has an Applied Science degree in Livestock Technology and jokes that he also has a PhD. from the-school-of-hard-knocks. 

He has been writing in the field and helping ranchers working with buffalo for 20 years. His customers are both large-scale and small buyers.  

Frasier says “Bison are not cattle and, if you ever forget that, they will quickly remind you.”

He sees three basic causes for bison misbehavior—fear, separation anxiety, and escape.

When buffalo feel too confined they often become “mentally fractured”—which can result in wild, erratic and aggressive behavior. National Bison Association.

“There are many Wild West stories about how unmanageable bison are, how dangerous they are, and they all begin with intentionally and forcibly, but unwittingly, causing the bison to act upon one or all of these three behavioral roots.”

“The recipe for success in handling bison is to mitigate fear, manage separation anxiety and allow escape.”

Over the years, producers have learned that you can make a buffalo do whatever they want to do.

This well known and widely used throughout the bison industry, Frazier says.

For instance, he points out the most efficient method of gathering bison is to feed them where you want them, and simply close the gate after they move there.

Feeding them in a large corral or in close proximity to the corral in a smaller control pasture is the best way to mitigate their fear of being contained.

On the other hand, he notes that in working buffalo, once in the squeeze chute, all three become factors.

Fear — they are afraid of close contact with humans. Separation anxiety — they are alone and they know it. Escape — they will exhaust all escape options.

“Never plan to gather bison and work them the same day,” he says.

“Always gather a day or two before you plan to work them. This allows them time to accept containment and will reduce stress and benefit labor efficiency while working them the next day.”

He suggests clients keep a record of what is not working well. If the holding pen is not big enough, negative behaviors, if noted on a clipboard, will become obvious and can be addressed for the future.

Stress reduction and labor efficiency are both moneymakers and components of a humane protocol.

Bison need extra room when they are contained and/or in waiting to be allowed through the handling facility. Extra space allows them to escape from each other and reduces the incidence of bison-on-bison injuries and losses.

Staying slow, steady and relaxed is the best approach.

When bison become frantic or reckless, stop what you are doing and wait until they calm down and regain their behavioral bearings.

One of the most common causes of elevated behaviors in bison in tight pens is having too many people helping. This can easily result in too much distraction for the bison, says Frasier.

Ultimately the most productive scenario is to have the pen constructed in such a way that the bison perceive they are escaping every time they move to exactly where you need them.

Curved alleyways and pens with solid sides offer bison the illusion of escape ahead without the risk of being caught in a corner. Alberta 4-H Manual.


Grandin corrals offer detailed plans on easy movement of the animals, through a smoothly working system.

Dr. Grandin makes the point that an increasing awareness of animal welfare and rights issues means that routine procedures that were considered adequate in the past are no longer acceptable in today’s society.

Thus, it is especially important that zoos, parks and other conservation systems have healthy, vibrant bison herds for public education and enjoyment and that they are treated well.

She writes, “A favorable public perception of captive animals is critical to park funding and reputation.

“Calm, beautiful, picture perfect animals are powerful advertisements for parks.”

Drivers wise in the ways of wildlife parks and refuges allow buffalo to cross highways when and where they choose, without interference. NSP.

Therefore, she urges that calm, knowledgeable, low stress handling techniques are essential.

Low Stress handling also implies an appropriate set-up of corrals and chutes.

Following Dr. Grandin’s advice and research, owners round corral corners and build solid walls so buffalo don’t spook at distractions or attempt an escape back to the hills.

Resources for Low-stress Buffalo Handling

Bud Williams Schools. www.stockmanship.com ; Excellent videos on Low-Stress Handling. No longer provide workshops.

Cote, Steve. Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management. Natural Resources Conservation Service; Arco, Idaho. USDA. 2004.

Grandin, Temple. The Calming of American Bison (Bison bison) During Routine Handling.  www.grandin.com, written with Jennifer L. Lanier, Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, Ft Collins, CO.

InterTribal Buffalo Council, Resources; for more information, 605-394-9730. Website. itbcbuffalo.com

Kossler, Mark. Low Stress Bison Handling. Bison Producers’ Handbook, National Bison Association. 2010.

National Bison Association. Contact NBA for references and recommendations for members who are using Low Stress Livestock methods on their ranches. bisoncentral.com

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Interview with Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, Malta, Montana.

In our BLOG of June 23, 2020, we published “American Serengeti—What is going on in Montana?,” which discusses the enormous wildlife project that is shaking the foundations of community development and progress in Phillips County, Montana, and Malta, its county seat, and nearby communities.

The American Prairie Reserve—APR, or simply the Prairie Reserve–on the upper Missouri River is a plan to develop a huge grazing unit—the largest nature reserve in the continental United States.

American Prairie Reserve buffalo graze along Telegraph Creek on Sun Prairie. Photo by APR, Dennis Lingohr.

On this land APR aims to turn back the clock and restore the wildlife that roamed here two centuries ago, along with its large predators—grizzly bears, packs of wolves, mountain lions—and great herds of wild buffalo.

The idea grew from casual roots when this Montana area was “discovered” in 2000 by a group of environmentalists who proclaimed it critical for preserving grassland biodiversity.

One year later, in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, a member of that group, a biologist named Curt Freese, teamed up with a Montana native named Sean Gerrity and together they formed the American Prairie Reserve (APR).

Gerrity, a Silicon Valley consultant, says the idea was to “move fast and be nimble,” in the manner of high-tech start-ups.

They would remove the thousands of cattle grazing public land, stock it with 10,000 buffalo, tear out divider fences, restore native vegetation, and add missing wildlife in a pristine natural setting. This would be much appreciated by their wealthy donors from all over the world who could visit occasionally, staying in opulent yurts.

In the 19 years since, the Prairie Reserve group has moved ahead, raising $160 million in private donations, nearly all of it from out-of-state high-tech and business entrepreneurs across the U.S. and Europe.

They have acquired 30 properties—cattle ranches—totaling 104,000 acres. To this they added about three times that—more than 300,000 acres—in grazing leases on adjacent federal and state land—as owners are allowed when they purchase land with grazing rights.

Plans are to purchase about 20 more ranches.

In this American Prairie map of the proposed area, blue areas depict lands purchased and leased by the American Prairie Reserve in the last 19 years. The plan is to connect these with Federal lands, including the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge (dark green) and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (light green) and other state and federal and perhaps Indian lands (brown). APR Map.

The properties purchased are all strategically located near two federally protected areas: the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, according to National Geographic (Feb.2020, p69-89), which partners with Prairie Reserve in the Last Wild Places initiative. Other Federal and State lands intersect as well. Most of these lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Department of Interior (DOT).

Other environmentalists, such as The Nature Conservancy, have long purchased lands for conservation, but none have done it in the large-scale APR proposes, according to National Geographic. Few have had the ambition as the Prairie Reserve does, of retaining long-term ownership and management authority of that land as well as adjoining publicly-owned lands.

Needless to say, cattle ranchers and many local townspeople—who have been watching the inevitable disintegration of formerly close communities, as one rancher after another sells out to APR, and families and businesses leave—are not pleased with what is happening.

We invited Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, representing the Philllips County Livestock Association, to give us the cattle ranchers side of this Montana controversy.

Below is our interview with Marko Manoukian.

Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, surveys the irrigation system in his county. He represents the Philllips County Livestock Association in presenting the cattle ranchers side of Montana controversy over APR. Photo submitted by M Manoukian.

Francie Berg: What is the American Prairie Reserve (APR) doing that upsets the local ranchers so much?

Marko Manoukian: Principally, they are crowding out the ability of ranchers to compete economically for agricultural land—in this case grazing land.

Because APR pays a premium for the property—more than a neighboring rancher could pay off with cows—this doesn’t allow for young people to come back and be engaged in livestock production.

Francie: Do you disagree with APR’s statement that they pay the regular, going price for land?

Marko: Correct, principally because, they are a 501C3 charitable organization so they get tax-free dollars to compete.

The tax code under charity is reserved for those things related to health or education. APR getting that designation is far outside the scope of the tax code.

But they got it somehow.

Francie: So they have already got from the BLM what they want?

Marko: Well, competition for the land is one issue.

Malta is losing its population of 2,000, say ranchers. They worry that each ranch APR acquires is one lost to the community, draining taxes from the county treasury, children from schools, and business from stores. Photo by maltachamber.com.

Another issue is that they’ve made application to BLM for year-around grazing and to alter the fence perimeter.

Neighboring ranchers or permitees are required to make application through the BLM and have been denied those things.

Francie: Denied what?

Marko: Year-around grazing and fence altercation. There’s supposed to be an environment assessment made by the BLM to be approved before any fences are changed.

None of that has happened—and I suppose in Phillips County alone they’ve probably altered 100 miles of BLM perimeter fence already.

Some neighboring operators are angry because now the fences are electric and that’s a hazard for them and their cattle.

Francie: Why is that a hazard?

Marko: Well as a neighboring rancher, yes it is. Because you’re not in charge of energizing the fence. They are.

So if your cow somehow got across the fence you might not know how to turn the fence off to get to the other side.

This would be the same for recreation, crawling around hunting—hunters may not know how to turn the fence off or even know that it is electric before they get zapped.

Francie:  You’re saying electric fences are a problem for recreation?

Marko: Yes. Electric fences are a limitation to recreation.

Francie: The BLM land is supposed to be open for recreation, isn’t it?

Hand Lettered sign objects to federal decisions overriding local input. Photo by Shawn Regan.

Marko: Correct. That’s not multiple use. We’ve argued that electric fence is not multiple use.

Francie: So you think the BLM is treating the cattle ranchers unfairly.

Marko: Yes, they are.

Francie:  And what course do the ranchers have?

Marko: Two actions that ranchers have taken.

BLM has said we’re going to change the allotment from cattle to bison. And the ranchers have objected to that. One is to object to change grazing from cattle to bison.

Francie: Can they just change it without consulting anyone?

Marko: True. Well they haven’t changed it yet. But early on the neighboring permitees could see that there is favoritism going on. So they’ve challenged everything that BLM has done.

Francie: You’ve done this in a legal way?

Marko: Yep. We’ve hired an attorney to review and represent us in that process.

I think there are 5 allotments now. Originally it was 18 allotments that they wanted to change to year-around grazing and bison grazing only. But now they have requested permits for just 5 allotments.

Francie: The ranchers are challenging this?

Marko: Yep.

Francie: What will happen next?

Marko: Eventually BLM will provide a document suggesting the best management alternatives they see under that request. So we’re just waiting for that environmental assessment document to come forward. Or they can deny the request all together.

Francie: So they can deny APR s request—or your request?

Marko: Yes, either of them.

So then the other action the livestock operators have taken. The citizens of the county have passed an ordinance that bison must be handled like livestock.

The citizens have said all bison have to be managed like cattle. This means owners have to do disease testing and some identification of their animals.

Signs in Malta oppose bison ranging free. “What APR really wants is a takeover of Federal land and control of how it’s managed,” says Deanna Robbins, a rancher in Roy.

But APR has asked for a variance from that ordinance So we’re working through that process.

Francie: I also noticed—BLM is saying that the bison are fine with just 1 single fence around the outside. In our area BLM is telling the ranchers they have to build inner dividing fences and rotate their cattle quite frequently.

Marko: Yes, all BLM pemitees are required to rotate their animals on BLM Land.

It’s the biggest change that BLM has taken on over the course of its existence. And now they want to go back to one giant pasture and keep the same animals in there all year around.

Francie: I read that the APR goal is to get 10,000 bison in their one large, single pasture. Do you think 10,000 would be fully stocked for that amount of land?

Marko: Yes, that’s more than a full load.

Francie: So won’t they graze it down even faster if they do it without rotation?

Marko: Yes, that’s our claim.

Francie: Montana is a big producer of cattle, right? So if this happens to that big chunk of grazing land, it will cut Montana’s beef production. Any speculation on this?

Marko: Oh, Yes. APR is planning on taking productive land and turning it into no production. That hurts our economy. Both regional and local economy are impacted. Also they are impacted because the APR operations aren’t buying fuel, fertilizer, net wrap and tires.

Francie: And it seems kind of deceptive that these people are outsiders from Silicon Valley, but making a case that they are Montanans, even placing their so-called national headquarters in Bozeman.

Marko: That’s their story, yes. Well some of them are, I guess.

Francie: What about the luxury yurts they are advertising for their donors? Are they available for use by everyone?

Marko: Well, it does appear that the preserve is used mostly by the upper class. Some of their packages are priced at $2,500 occupancy per person—that doesn’t include their traveling to get here.

Yurts on the plains may look as simple as granaries. But according to photos in Prairie Reserve’s advertising material the luxury is all inside. They are draped in opulent hangings and furnished with exotic items for lavish living in the manner of Arab tents awaiting Lawrence of Arabia. David Grubbs, Billings Gazette.

Francie: What about local people? Do they have a lower price for ordinary people to stay overnight?

Marko: I don’t know if they advertise a local or lower price.

Francie: They say they don’t charge people to come onto their lands. Is it free to come into their refuges?

Marko: They don’t have any legal authority to regulate how people enter the BLM land, which is the majority of their holdings. I’m suspicious that on their deeded land—some people may be charged and some not.

Francie: Right now do they only run bison on their purchased land, not BLM lands?

Marko: I believe they do have 1 BLM permit licensed for bison, but no other bison as yet on BLM land.

Francie: Sounds as if they are trying to totally change the livestock from cattle to bison. I also heard a complaint that this will give APR long-term power about how the bison pastures are handled.

Marko: I don’t know that they’re going to have a lot of repeat customers to come out to the prairie. We haven’t had rain on the prairie for most of the summer. So the grasshoppers are horrible.

I know there are going to be ranchers who have to adjust the livestock they have on BLM land.

Francie: So how are they going to adjust the bison numbers in a dry year if they already have too many head? If there are too many grasshoppers and too little moisture—have they planned for that?

Marko: No they don’t plan for those kinds of environmental impacts.

Like in 2010 and 2011 we had 100 inches of snow. APR didn’t have any hay. The buffalo broke out. Left their property, traveled a long ways, and had to be brought back by helicopter.

Francie: Why did they break out?

Marko: The buffalo broke out because they were hungry! 

Hopefully long-term BLM will stick to the rules.

Francie: Do you have a good case?

Marko: I think we do. And hopefully the rules of management of our public land will hold. Congress hasn’t overturned the Taylor Grazing Act. So if they stick to the rules, they’ll have to make application and not be allowed to run free-range.

Francie: So they won’t be able to just run freely under 1 big fence. You’re saying that most of the cattle ranchers agree on this?

Marko: Yes—they would be against changing the rules.

Francie: Doesn’t APR plan to link all this land with just 1 perimeter fence around it?

Marko: That’s their theory. But they’re pretty well spread across our county and across the river and they’re not necessarily connected.

DOI Presents 10-year Plan for Bison

Geese fly over a semi truck emblazoned with a banner promoting private land ownership in Lewistown on Thursday, Jan. 24. Across the street the American Prairie Reserve was holding a public conference for agricultural producers on Living with Wildlife. Photo Bret French, Billings Gazette.

Francie: It’s interesting, the “Save the Cowboy” signs we see around your county and other counties close by. I think their point is quite clear—a lot of local people don’t like what they are seeing.

However, I see that the Department of the Interior (DOI) of which BLM and the government grazing lands are a part, has a new 10-year plan concerning Bison.

That powerful department—DOI which governs one eighth of the land mass of the United States—recently announced their commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on “appropriate large landscapes.” 

Their 10-year plan, called the Bison Conservation Initiative, is a new cooperative program that will coordinate conservation strategies and approaches for the wild American Bison over the next 10 years. They mention working with tribal herds in North and South Dakota.

What do you think of that, Marko?

Marko: In Interior’s press release I don’t see any mention of tribes in Montana, so hard to say what impact this will have in other states.

With the smallest cow herds in the US at least since 1950 one would wonder why the US government would help tribes remove more cattle. But if the tribes want to do that just on tribal lands that would be ok, of course.

Francie: Right, both the projects mentioned in the press release are quite limited, and have to do with increasing tribal buffalo herds and genetics of the Theodore Roosevelt Park herd.

On the other hand—when we look at DOI’s 10-year goals organized around five central themes,

it sounds as if they might have wider plans than that.

Here are DOI’s announced 10-year goals:

1.Wild, Healthy Bison Herds: A commitment to conserve bison as healthy wildlife

2.Genetic Conservation: A commitment to an interagency, science-based approach to support genetic diversity across DOI bison conservation herds

3.Shared Stewardship: A commitment to shared stewardship of wild bison in cooperation with states, tribes and other stakeholders

4.Ecological Restoration: A commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities

5.Cultural Restoration: A commitment to restore cultural connections to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people (Department of Interior Press Release 5/7/2020)

Ecological Restoration and establishing and maintaining large, wide-ranging bison herds” sounds eerily like what the Prairie Reserve is trying to do.

Yet if that commitment is to be tempered by the “Shared Stewardship,” pledge to cooperate with “states, tribes and other stakeholders,” surely DOI will not participate in deliberate breaking up of close communities against the desires of local residents.

When there is a strong cultural backlash from 100-year residents—as there is from Malta and the Phillips County cattle ranchers—certainly that needs to be considered.

DOI and BLM when acting locally will surely recognize heavy-handedness when they participate in it.

If they think they can override local protests, the “Save the Cowboy” signs make the issues clear. Montana ranchers are making them plain with both lawyers and hand-made signs.

A pair of horses on Lewistown’s Main Street helped spread a message of support for cowboys and opposition to the American Prairie Reserve during the Living With Wildlife Conference last winter, for which the APR was a co-sponsor. Photo by Danica Rutten.

It seems that DOI and BLM need to back off and recognize that the arrogance of these environmental outsiders does not sit well with Montanans.

Their heavy-handedness can in no way be called “Shared Stewardship” with “states and other stakeholders” even when they can “move fast and be nimble,” in the words of Sean Gerrity.

Indeed, maybe 10,000 sometimes-hungry buffalo under one single electric-fenced pasture is not such a lofty goal, after all.

Right DOI? And if you’ve been thinking so, please tell us why.

What gives them—and you—the right to destroy living communities?

Maybe it only proves the arrogance and pig-headedness of those who have “discovered” this little gem of 100 years of shared conservation efforts at such a late date?

For more on how DOI is working “to improve the conservation and management of bison,” contact Interior_Press@ios.doi.gov)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Sitting Bull Visitor’ Center near Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

If you’re a traveler coming into the Hettinger-Lemmon area from the east or west, you will likely plan to complete your tour by visiting Sites 9 and 10 either before or after the main section of your tour.

Otherwise, separate trips might take you through Fort Yates and Jamestown—which are somewhat to the northeast.

Tribal herds can be viewed at Ft. Yates, and other reservations. The “largest buffalo,” and a National Buffalo Museum that includes a full-body mount of the famed White Cloud reside in Jamestown.

If time allows, a stop in Bismarck at the North Dakota Heritage Center—midway between the two final sites—adds one more important theme to the buffalo story. Here you’ll find exhibits of the pre-historic bones of ancient buffalo found in the state.

Outdoor Events on Capital Grounds in Bismarck feature arts, crafts, food vendors and entertainment. Courtesy ND Tourism.

Part I. Sites 1-4 of this Tour, published in our Sept. 8, 2020 Blog, told of the great traditional hunts from 1880 to 1883. These last great buffalo hunts—the Hiddenwood Hunt, the winter hunt in the Slim Buttes and the valley of the last stand, which was the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

Part II. Sites 5-8, Sept. 22, 2020. Then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, the Duprees—a Native American family— returned to the hunt site (Site 5) to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for growing their own buffalo herd at a critical time.

Included on this part of the tour are some ancient locations—such as the authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill SD, used for thousands of years before horses arrived on the Plains—and Native American traditions that incorporated buffalo into their culture.

This is the region where all parts of the Buffalo story come together.

There’s no other place like it for buffalo history and traditions—from ancient times until now, when nearly every tribe in the Plains owns their own buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website.

We outline world class trips to visit these buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and promotes it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide book “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 9. Tribal Herds—Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Buffalo in Standing Rock’s North Pasture graze in green grass by Highway 1806 (ND 24), just south of the Prairie Knights Casino. FM Berg.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which spans the North and South Dakota border, headquartered in Fort Yates, N.D., has a long history of raising buffalo. Initially they were private herds, such as those owned by the Dupree family from the early 1880s.

The first permanent tribally-owned herd arrived in 1955—one bull and four cows—a gift from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, according to Mike Faith, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, who was the Tribal buffalo manager for nearly 20 years.

Other buffalo came as donations from Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks in South Dakota, or were purchased with tribal funds and grants through the years. To improve genetic diversity, the tribe bought bulls from the Custer State Park buffalo sale.

Standing Rock now runs 400 to 500 buffalo in two herds—about the right size for the grazing land available. It’s important not to overgraze in the drought-prone plains, explains Faith.

To view one or both tribal herds owned by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe inquire at the tourism office in Fort Yates—it’s a beautiful building halfway up the hillside to the left as you approach the town of Ft. Yates.

Gift shop in Sitting Bull Visitor’s Center offers beaded moccasins, jewlery and other handmade crafts. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

You may need special permission and probably a guide to take you through the necessary gates and fences if you visit the south herd in the picturesque Porcupine Breaks or Hills. There the scenery is amazingly rugged and the roads primitive.

Buffalo graze through prairie dog town in the Porcupine Breaks pasture. Courtesy Standing Rock.

Or you may drive directly to the north pasture, which borders Hwy 1806 (ND 24) on the road to Mandan, just south of the Prairie Knights Casino (also owned by the SRS Tribe), and view the north buffalo herd through the fence.

Here the terrain is more rolling, carpeted thickly with green grass, less dramatic than the rugged Porcupine Breaks pasture up on the flat, but it also runs through some badlands country as it drops down toward the Missouri River on the east side.

As happens, off and on through an ordinary week, a knot of people gathers by the highway, watching buffalo in the north pasture through the double-high woven wire fence.

Smiling, murmuring softly—they might be a school tour from nearby Bullhead, Eagle Butte or Wakpala. Or tourists from Minnesota or Norway spilling from a charter bus.

Or perhaps a visiting group of Native people in traditional dress are performing a buffalo ceremonial. They’ve parked briefly along the highway or on the side road along the south edge of the pasture going east.

“We’d like a highway drive-off, so people can stop more easily,” notes my guide, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Historian and Director of Tourism for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

After spending as much time as you like contemplating live buffalo, continue driving north to Interstate-94 at Mandan, where you turn east to Jamestown to view more one-of-a-kind buffalo-related sites.

InterTribal Council efforts—A homecoming

ITBC logo

Throughout Indian country buffalo have staged a homecoming.

Assisting and inspiring this come-back has been the mission of the InterTribal Buffalo Council for two and a half decades.

In February 1991, a meeting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, brought together 19 tribes to talk about the challenges they face with their own herds and how they can help other tribes restore buffalo to Indian lands.

Coming from all four directions, they discussed their tribes’ desire to obtain or expand buffalo herds and grow them into successful, self-sufficient programs.

Above and beyond the practical economics of it, they wanted to raise buffalo in a way that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.

Buffalo represent the Native spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

Together these Native leaders launched the InterTribal Buffalo Council, believing that reintroduction of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.

In June of that same year Congress voted to provide funding for tribal programs and to donate surplus buffalo from national parks and public refuges to interested tribes.

The InterTribal Council agreed to supervise grants and distribution of the animals.

Buffalo began coming home to reservations in earnest.

Today 69 Indian tribes belong to the InterTribal Council, owning a total of more than 20,000 buffalo now living in tribal herds across the United States.

Many tribes run large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes. Traditionally they believe restoration of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo. Photo by InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Many are plains tribes with a long history of depending on buffalo for food, shelter and clothing. Others have no known history of hunting buffalo, but want the cultural experience for their people.

Mike Faith, as vice-chairman of the InterTribal Council, has worked with many of these tribes. He says some own large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes.

 Others set goals for a small herd mostly for cultural and educational purposes. They might slaughter only one or two buffalo a year for special celebrations and ceremonial use.

 It depends on land available, land uses on the reservation, tribal population and historic dependence on buffalo.

InterTribal Council technicians explain working buffalo in the chutes at a workshop. Photo by ITBC.

 

 

 

 

 

“Quality over quantity is what counts,” explains Faith. “Whether they want a small herd—20 or 30, or a larger commercial herd—we can give help and technical assistance.”

No matter the numbers, Faith suggests it is important that new tribes take their buffalo venture seriously, hiring a competent manager.

 The InterTribal Council offers training and educational programs—such as in low stress buffalo handling—and coordinates transfer of buffalo.

 If desired, experienced leaders are available to help the new buffalo owners work out management and marketing plans that fit with their particular concerns and goals.

 Sometimes the experienced buffalo handlers recommend fewer animal numbers to better accommodate the land available. A buffalo herd needs plenty of space, grass and water.

Details like building high, strong fences before the buffalo arrive are essential—and costly. There may be grants available to help, they suggest. They also work with federal agencies to help bring fractured lands together for pastures.

“Having the buffalo back helps rejuvenate the culture,” says Jim Stone, Executive Secretary of the InterTribal Buffalo Council based in Rapid City and a Yankton Lakota, “In my tribe, like others, the buffalo was honored through ceremony and songs. There were buffalo hunts and prayers to give thanks to the buffalo.”

The Council has adopted a lofty mission: “Restoring buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural and traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.”

Daily the leaders are reminded that buffalo represent the spirit of Native people and how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

They believe that to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. And returning the buffalo to tribal lands will “help heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of the Indian people.”

“We have many cultural connections to the buffalo,” points out Alvah Quinn, a South Dakota Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Director, who also has managed the local Extension Program.

“I grew up hearing about the buffalo, but we didn’t have any around on the reservation.” His tribe’s last recorded buffalo hunt was in 1879.

Quinn says he will always remember the rainy night in September 1992 when he helped bring the first 40 buffalo to his home reservation.

 “I was really surprised that night. There were 60 tribal members waiting in the cold and rain to welcome the buffalo back home. After a 112-year absence!”

 They now own 350 buffalo—one of many success stories.

 In Alaska, Randy Mayo, first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, believes being around buffalo can help people work through personal problems.

 He acknowledges that when the village voted to move forward with raising buffalo, he didn’t know much about the animal that had provided food, clothing and shelter to his ancestors.

He learned a lot.

“Every time I come here it lifts me up,” said Mayo. “Just observing them, you never get tired of it.”

Herdsmen play a special role. Caring for buffalo enhances feelings of self-worth and pride in the men and women who work with them, reports Art Schmidt, South Dakota’s Flandreau Santee Sioux buffalo herd manager.

He sees an amazing change in the attitudes of people he hires.

A fenced viewing stand overlooking the Oneida Tribal herd provides a safe place for visiting groups. Courtesy Oneida Tribe.

“Knowing they are taking care of that beautiful magnificent creature—it becomes part of who they are and gives them a sense of pride in their culture,” Schmidt says. “They’re not just going out and doing their job and collecting a paycheck and going home.” 

The Standing Rock tribe harvests 15 to 25 young bulls a year for its own use. Processed in Mobridge under federal inspection, the meat is donated to food distribution programs and provides buffalo roasts and stew meat for various celebrations.

Faith hopes to get buffalo meat into their school system of 800 students.

In many tribes, anyone putting on a community feed can request buffalo meat. It is served at graduations, funerals, naming ceremonies and community celebrations, and has become an honored part of the healthy foods in diabetes programs.

Cherishing Buffalo Meat

The opportunity to eat buffalo meat is cherished by Native Americans.

“Eat the meat of the buffalo,” say Native elders.  “It’s healing. It keeps our people strong. It fills the soul as well as the body.

Considered delicious and healthy, hearty and sweet, tasty and tender, buffalo beef is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein, highly absorbable iron and zinc, plus other minerals and vitamins.

When grass fed, it has even less fat and is thus more nutrient-dense.

Butchering and caring for the meat is regarded as an integral part of the circle of life, and as an important skill to teach children.

“Every part has a meaning. We use them all,” Allard explains.

Some, such as the Fort Peck tribes in northeastern Montana, where I visited, have built their own butchering facility, out near the corrals, for tribal members who want to purchase and slaughter their own buffalo from the business herd of about 200 head.

Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Fish and Game Director, told me, “We have all the equipment and they bring their own wrap. We teach them how to cut up and cook the different parts.”

But first, says Magnan, “We talk to the buffalo. Tell them we need meat to feed our families. Thank them for their willingness to take care of us.”

Some tribes sell federally inspected buffalo meat and some sell buffalo hunts to people from across the United States and other countries.

Learning from the Buffalo

People can learn much from the buffalo, says LaDonna Allard.

“Our tribe is the original ‘Buffalo Nation—Pte Oyate.’ Everything we do is related to the buffalo. In our ceremonies we use all parts of the buffalo. In the powwow we dance like the buffalo. How we raise our children. . .

Allard tells the story of a Native woman who neglected her children. The tribal judge placed them in a foster home and sentenced her to go each day for six months to watch the buffalo herd, writing down what she saw.

In six months she returned to court.

“What did you learn?” asked the judge.

“I learned that buffalo mothers protect and praise, and constantly care for their children. They teach—and discipline them too, but in a good way.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes. I want my children back. I’ll try to be a better mother—like buffalo mothers.”

The Council leaders recognize that even after more than a century of recovery, many Native Americans still feel an acute sense of loss over the destruction of the wild buffalo herds and all that represents in their lives.

The InterTribal Buffalo Council is committed to establishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a way that promotes spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development. They suggest that for people who may be hurting, contemplating their own tribal buffalo can help them heal and bring a sense of wholeness and peace.

Teaching young people about traditional relationships and spiritual connections to the buffalo is important to Lisa Colome, a grasslands expert with the InterTribal Council.

“Native kids have a natural connection to the buffalo,” she tells me, her dark eyes warming. “They’re just naturally born with this awe. They are never disrespectful and show genuine caring. This is what tribes are seeking.”

She enjoys bringing children to see the buffalo.

“Once I brought a group of sixth graders. They watched silently as the buffalo ran over the hill out of sight. I said, ‘Just wait, I think they’ll come back if we’re quiet.’

“We peeked over the hill. The buffalo circled back and came within 25 feet. The kids had never been that close before.”

It’s easy to see that Colome is excited about her work, whether her day focuses on herd and forage health, or cultural and spiritual ties.

Not always do tribal herds bring financial benefits, she knows—often quite the opposite. But always she sees cultural value.

“I love being a part of developing tactics, plans and solutions that ensure buffalo are here for generations to come,” she says.

“Return of the buffalo awakens the Native spirit—it gives us hope of better lives.”

Site 10. National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown

Jamestown ND—with its “World’s Largest Buffalo” overlooking the town and the buffalo pasture—may have been an obvious choice for locating the National Buffalo Museum. ND Tourism. 

 In the early 1990s the National Buffalo Association and the American Bison Association merged into the National Bison Association. They pooled their collections of buffalo-related artifacts, artwork, and historical memorabilia and looked for a historically significant place to display them.

Jamestown, ND, was perhaps an obvious choice.

Already it was home to the World’s Largest Buffalo, Dakota Thunder, built in 1959 on a hill above the town of Jamestown, right next to the Interstate—I-94. A frontier town had sprung up at its base, and a pasture between was planned for a buffalo herd.

“Largest Buffalo” is a popular photo op for families. ND Tourism.

Further, the location had an ancient history of buffalo migrations along the south-flowing James River. A place where Native hunters lay in wait for easy hunting in fall and spring.

The new museum opened in June 1993, with the North Dakota Buffalo Foundation dedicated to its management and financial stability.

The museum is now home to numerous art works, artifacts, and related Native American items. Visitors see items such as a 10,000 year old bison skull, a complete skeleton of bison antiqus (ancestor to the modern bison), artworks and artifacts relevant to the history of the American bison.

Featured in one room is the full body mount of White Cloud, Jamestown’s beloved albino bison, honored in a glass case and brushed to an elegant sheen. For 20 years she reigned as a prize of the local buffalo herd.

The Museum also hosts the Buffalo Hall of Fame, where visitors learn about the people who have had significant impacts on conservation and restoration of the US National Mammal. And of course an extensive gift shop.

Interactive exhibits are attractions of the National Buffalo Museum, as well as extensive buffalo art, gifts and buffalo cookies. ND Tourism.

Summer hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 am–8 pm daily. Winter hours: Mon-Sat. 10 am-5 pm. Admission $8-$6. (701-252-8648; 1-800-807-1511) www.buffalomuseum.com

World’s Largest Buffalo

Located at the end of Louis L’Amour Lane, stands the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument, rising tall on the hill in Jamestown, ND.

Buffalo pasture extends into green draws between the big buffalo and I-94. ND Tourism.

Drive through the gate at Frontier Village—it’s open with museum hours.

You will see the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument towering ahead. It stands 26 feet tall, weighs 60-ton—a fun photo op for your family.

A popular roadside attraction for over 50 years, the huge sculpture was created by sculptor Elmer Petersen. On the site with the National Buffalo Museum and a live herd of Buffalo, and an extensive Frontier Village.

Legendary White Buffalo: White Cloud Dynasty

Many plains tribes regard a white buffalo as sacred. Since 1996 traditional Native people have journeyed to Jamestown, North Dakota, to honor and see for themselves the dynasty of White Cloud and her offspring.

Dakota Legend, born to a brown mother in 2008, was believed to be grandson of White Cloud (adults in the Jamestown herd were not identifiable by ear tags or tatoos).

For about 20 years—from the time White Cloud joined the buffalo herd from the Michigan, North Dakota ranch where she was born until her death in Nov. 2016—her white hide showed up clearly among the brown buffalo herd.

Because of her rarity and easy visibility at the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo, we added this stop to our tour.

When travelling east on I-94, we hope you will stop and see this miracle for yourselves—a heritage that may stem from the famous Big Medicine himself.

If you dont see the buffalo herd or they are partially hidden from view, drive around the pasture or inquire at the Museum. You may be able to watch them from the museum’s viewing deck with the binoculars provided.

Or come to view them at different times of the day—buffalo like to keep moving.

Once in a great while, rare as it is, a ghostly little newcomer is born into a buffalo herd. A form of albinism, this can occur in any living thing, animal or plant.

From ancient times Native Americans have honored white buffalo and white robes as sacred and carried out special ceremonies to celebrate them.

 

Many Native people today continue these traditions.

In modern times, Jamestown, North Dakota, has been one of the easiest places to see authentic rare white buffalo.

In a narrow hilly pasture along the Interstate, tourists have spotted two and, at one time, even three white animals of purest beautygrazing there in a herd of about 30 brown buffalo.

These were White Cloud, Dakota Miracle and Dakota Legend.

White Cloud, who was born in 1996 and died of old age in 2016, was a true certified albino with pink eyes and skin and not quite black horns. She is mounted and on display at the National Buffalo Museum where she lived most of her 20 years.

This dynasty of white buffalo began when White Cloud was born on a private North Dakota buffalo ranch not far away. The owners offered to share their joy and excitement with admirers through a special lease agreement, but preferred to remain anonymous.

Indian elders came with their drums and sage to welcome her. It was a fitting location for White Cloud and her white offspring.

Years ago Jamestown leaders erected the Worlds Largest Buffalo,a huge cement buffalo on the hill above town. Twenty-six feet high, it honors the great herds that once grazed these rich grasslands and followed a major migration route north and south along the James River valley—a route known for centuries to Native hunters.

Eventually, a historic Frontier Town sprang up beside the big monument, a buffalo herd found pasture, and the National Bison Association decided to locate its National Buffalo Museum there.

Depending on the season and pasture rotations, visitors were able to view one or more white buffalo at this site.

After first giving birth to three brown calves, in 2007 White Cloud produced Dakota Miracle, a white male. Then in 2008, Dakota Legend was born to a brown mother, believed to one of White Cloud’s daughters, in the same Jamestown herd.

Both these two white offspring had blue or brown eyes and dark horns and hooves.

Dakota Miracle grew to adulthood and outlived his mother by a few years, but unfortunately had some health issues. One evening he fell down a steep bank and, apparently unable to rise, was found dead the next morning.

Famous White Buffalo

 Two other well-known white buffalo are Blizzard, a white bull that the Winnipeg Assiniboine Zoo purchased as a yearling in 2005 from a U.S. herd,to honor the buffalo as Manitobas Provincial emblem, according to zoo curator, Dr. Robert E. Wrigley; and Custer, a bull purchased as a seven-year-old from a North Dakota ranch in June 2014 by the Briarwood Safari Ranch, owned by Ron and Deborah Nease, in Bybee, Tennessee.

Famous white buffalo now deceased include what was probably the most famous Buffalo ever: Montanas Big Medicine, born in 1933 who lived for 26 years on the National Bison Range. (See “Legacy of White Buffalo—Big Medicine,” featured in our Aug 25, 2020, Blog.)

Miracle was born in Wisconsin in 1994, and died at age ten. And, all too briefly little Lightning Medicine Cloud, born in 2011 in Texas, lived for only one year. This little white calf was owned by Arby Little Soldier, of the Lakota Sioux tribe from South Dakota.

 Celebrating the Birth of a White Calf

Wherever white buffalo appear, Native people come to visit them, bringing gifts of tobacco ties, colored scarves, dream-catchers and other treasures. Elders perform ceremonials and blessings, waving smudges of sweet grass and singing prayers to drum beats for this highly spiritual animal.

 Many plains tribes celebrate the birth of a white calf as a holy event, and regard the little calf as a sign of peace and harmony—and good times to come.

 They affirm that the white buffalo symbolizes spiritual renewal and the hope of bringing people of all backgrounds closer together. Some see the white buffalo as a manifestation of the White Buffalo Calf Maiden, long revered in Plains tribes as a prophet.

 The welcoming ceremonies were experiences he will never forget, reports Dr. Wrigley, of the Winnipeg Zoo. I felt like I was stepping back into an ancient time to observe the most-sacred and private of ceremonies of a people little known to my culture.

 It has been, he says, A wonderful experience interacting with numerous individuals from First Nations and Métis communities, and they have taught me so much about their traditional relationships with Nature and the spiritual world.

Thank you for Joining us on our Northern Plains Buffalo Tour 

Thank you for joining us on the Dakota Buttes Buffalo Tour of the Northern Great Plains—in the Hettinger/ Lemmon/ Bison / Buffalo area and the Grand River National Grasslands buffalo-related sites. Both historic and contemporary.

We hope you enjoyed it as much as we have in bringing it to you. This is a work in progress, so please share with us your comments and suggestions.

Through the months ahead we will be bringing you more tour-worthy buffalo sites throughout the US and Canada.

In the Dakotas you may also see buffalo at close range, driving among them within their ranges in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, both north and south units, especially near Medora, N.D. (check the prairie dog towns toward evening) and in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of S.D., as well as in tribal herds of every Indian Reservation.

 So if you have any favorites, we’d love to hear about them. Thanks again!

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Tour of Buffalo Sites near Hettinger, Part II

Tour of Buffalo Sites near Hettinger, Part II

At the center of the Northern Plains is a rugged section of Badlands, buttes and fertile grasslands, where buffalo, cattle and sheep graze, and deer and antelope still roam.

 Please join us on the 10-site tour we’ve put together of the last great hunts and other historic and contemporary buffalo events, each clearly marked by a yellow sign.

After the miracle when the last great buffalo herd of 50,000 returned here to the relative safety of the Great Sioux Reservation in the fall of 1880 they survived here for nearly three years before being killed off, mostly in traditional Native American hunts.

 These included the winter hunt in the Slim Buttes of the Duprees, theHiddenwook Hunt, and the valley of the last stand—the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

The Self-Guided Tour includes three of the Last Great Buffalo Hunts including the final harvest of 1,200 buffalo by the Sitting Bull band in 1883. Painting by CMRussell, Amon Carter Museum.

At the center of these events are previously untold stories and authentic, unspoiled places to envision where they took place.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

 The history of the last buffalo hunts you’ll find here is true and documented from primary sources. Although not widely known until recently, it is told in detail by people who were there on those hunts.

 They are traditional Native American hunts that somehow fell through the cracks of U.S. history.

 Often showcased is the shameful history of the buffalo’s final days as a wasteful slaughter by white hide hunters.

White hide hunters slaughtered huge numbers of buffalo with powerful guns, in what was called a stand—often a single shooter hidden from sight, killing any leader that attempted to run. Illustration from Wm. Hornaday’s 1889 book “The Extermination of the American Bison.”

That happened, of course. But it is not the whole story.

 Instead, the first-person recollections from these final hunts bring together a heroic saga befitting the noble beasts themselves.

It features Native Americans, who followed time-honored religious traditions in planning and preparing for each hunt, following through, caring for the meat—and never failing to give thanks for their success.

And then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, the Duprees, one local Native American family returned to the hunt site to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for nourishing their own herd.

Included on the tour are Prairie Thunder, a full-size mounted buffalo at the Dakota Buttes museum, and an authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill, S.D, used for thousands of years—long before hunters had the luxury of horses and guns. 

 In no other place in the world can you find the history of all these events brought together.

 Here all parts of the Buffalo story come together. From ancient times until now, when nearly every Indian Tribe in the Plains owns their own tribal buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

Visitors can plan their Buffalo Trails jaunt from anywhere in the world via online connections.

  So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website. We outline world class trips to visit buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and pitches it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 5. Saving Five Calves

This may well be the area where Pete Dupree and his family came with a buckboard wagon to capture buffalo calves. Although we don’t know the precise details, likely it happened in 1881, the next summer after their Slim Buttes hunt.

The Dupree party likely came over the ridge at the left in a buckboard wagon from their homes on Cherry Creek, and perhaps discovered a band of buffalo resting under the shade of the cottonwoods and cooling off in the shallow waters of the Grand River. Photo FM Berg.

 

 

 

As cattle ranchers, they no doubt looked for young calves they could catch and handle, but strong enough to survive the trauma of being adopted by reluctant range cows.

Imagine the Duprees coming from the southeast—center left—from their homes on Cherry Creek at the Cheyenne River.

Their small party must have included the wagon and several Lakota horseback riders, perhaps leading extra horses for packing fresh meat home. They travelled about 50 to 60 miles to the first buffalo herds—a two-day trip with the wagon—and not far from today’s town of Dupree, named for the family.

Methods of catching calves varied, as described in several sources. When buffalo stampeded from hunters, a number of calves usually fell behind and could be tamed. Or hunters could shoot cows and rope the calves that milled around their carcasses.

Young calves often came willingly to their captors. It was said a hunter might walk up to a buffalo calf and put two or three fingers in its mouth. After it sucked, the calf followed happily wherever he went.

 Sometimes they followed a rider on horseback.

Young calves could be easy to catch when they fell behind the herd. Photo courtesy of South Dakota Game Fish and Parks.

Charles Goodnight, Texas rancher, said if he chased a herd of buffalo, young calves soon tired and fell behind. Then if he changed course and turned aside, the calves followed his horse rather than the herd. One day three buffalo calves followed him all the way to his ranch.

Not so, older calves. They sometimes fought so ferociously when roped that they fell dead. Many other captured calves died before they got the nourishment they needed.

The Duprees must have done things right to avoid the typically high death loss of orphan buffalo calves. They found range cows to mother the young calves, despite the challenge of coaxing wary range cows to accept the strange-smelling calves—and the lanky youngsters to nurse the low-slung cows.

The Duprees in their buckboard likely had outriders and pack horses along to carry fresh meat home for their several families. CM Russell painting, ACM.

 

 

 

But once bonded the five buffalo calves apparently followed their new mothers happily, grazing together on reservation lands with the Dupree cattle. Later they may have added more calves.

 By 1888 Pete Dupree owned 16 buffalo. When he died in 1898, his herd had increased to more than 80.

 Fortunately, his brother-in-law found a willing buyer in Scotty Philip of Fort Pierre, who ran thousands of cattle with his wife Sarah “Sally” on her reservation allotment—as a Lakota and French woman.

 Phillip sent six cowboys to round up the Dupree herd and drive them the hundred miles to his fenced pasture. His nephew George wrote of the formidable task of chasing nearly wild buffalo, but they finally brought in 83 through the pasture gate.

By this time American buffalo were nearly extinct as a species. William Hornaday had made his official count of the surviving buffalo in a report to the Smithsonian Museum in 1887, as published in his book The Extermination of the American Bison, two years later.

His careful tally listed only 1,091 head for all of North America, with the largest herd being 200 in Yellowstone Park. Barely over 500 lived in the U.S., and he added 550 as “very old rumors” of buffalo in Canada.

 The “bottleneck,” as it’s been called—came in the 1890’s, or perhaps a bit later, around the turn of the century when the “safe and protected” Yellowstone Park herd of around 200 was decimated by poachers.

The narrow bottleneck nearly closed off completely then. It could have happened. The American buffalo could have died out forever.

“There is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive ten years hence,” Hornaday wrote in despair. “The nearer the species approaches complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found.”

 Yet, amazingly, buffalo made it through the bottleneck and were saved from extinction.

“The buffalo were saved because a handful of men captured a few wild buffalo and raised them in captivity during the 1880s and 1890s,” writes David A. Dary in “The Buffalo Book.”

Five groups and families are honored as pivotal in saving the buffalo. They are the Pete Dupree and James “Scotty” Philip families in South Dakota; Samuel Walking Coyote and his herd purchasers Charles Allard and Michel Pablo in western Montana; James McKay and neighbors of Manitoba, Canada; the Charles Goodnights of Texas, and C.J. “Buffalo” Jones of Kansas.

Three of the five had Native American roots and knew well the cultural importance of buffalo in the lives of their people. The Dupree and Philip families, the Walking Coyotes and Allard and Pablo, and McKay, a Métis, all held a personal stake in buffalo survival. Rather than butchering or selling the increase, they tended to grow their herds, multiplying and strengthening their numbers. They valued the natural wild traits of the buffalo without trying to alter them.

The other two, the Goodnights of Texas and Buffalo Jones of Kansas, respected the natural world, cherished their buffalo and their own roles in preserving them.

However, more than the others, perhaps, both hoped to reap economic rewards, and engaged in considerable buying and selling. Also, both experimented with unsuccessful cross-breeding with cattle in the hope of developing hardier, more productive beef animals.

Likely others helped to save the buffalo, yet these families made special efforts to rescue and raise buffalo calves and kept sustainable adult herds for many years. Their herds flourished and eventually became the foundation for buffalo herds throughout the United States and Canada.

While men received most of the credit from early historians, women were much involved in saving the buffalo, as well. Native American women went on all the big hunts, watched the great herds disappear under the ruthless slaughter by commercial white hunters with their powerful, long-range rifles and called for saving them.

 Ranch women, both Indian and white, likely helped the fragile calves to survive and thrive.

“Mary Ann Good Elk Dupree and Sarah Philip were unsung heroines in the saga, largely ignored by historians but credited by their families for their roles,” wrote Pat Springer in the Oct. 12, 2009, Rapid City Journal. “Both women were Lakota, for whom the buffalo are sacred. And both, according to their descendants, helped persuade their husbands to rescue buffalo for their preservation.”

 Scotty Philip grew his buffalo herd to as many as a thousand. On the Missouri River bluffs west of Pierre his buffalo became a well-known tourist attraction. When he died in 1911, it took his sons 15 years to sell them. Many went to parks and wildlife sanctuaries in South Dakota and throughout the country as well as to private individuals.

History rightly gives the Duprees and Philips, the Walking Coyotes with Pablo and Allard, McKay, Goodnights and Jones a great deal of credit for saving the buffalo.

Also honored for this distinction are the visionary conservationists—William Hornaday, President Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bird Grinnell—who fought for buffalo sanctuaries and laws to protect them.

Today nearly half a million buffalo range across the face of North America, about half in the U.S. and half in Canada. It’s an incredible comeback for a species that hovered at the edge of extinction about a century ago.

Many of the 40,000 buffalo living in South Dakota today—still the state with the most buffalo, by many thousands—are direct descendants of those few calves the Duprees rescued on their reservation very near to this spot. For more than 40 years those buffalo were nourished and multiplied by the two families, the Pete Duprees and Scotty Phillips.

SITE 5. What happened to the Southern Herd?

 While viewing these vast plains to the south is a good time to contemplate what happened to the southern herd that was decimated during the 1870s—several years before the buffalo returned here to Dakota Territory.

In 1871 an estimated 3.5 million head of buffalo grazed the southern ranges. Four years later all were gone, victims of white hide hunters with big guns. Only a few escaped to hide out in distant canyons. SD Tourism.

Visualize those wide-open plains farther south—200 miles and more distant—to central Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and eastern Colorado and New Mexico.

In 1871 an estimated 3.5 million head of buffalo grazed those southern buffalo ranges. Only four years later—by fall of 1875—the entire southern herd was gone.

Most fell to commercial white hide hunters with long-range buffalo guns. It was made possible by the railroads crisscrossing those ranges, bringing huge numbers of eager hunters to previously inaccessible areas.

The first transcontinental railway Union Pacific crossed the nation in 1869, permanently dividing the buffalo into two great herds—the northern and the southern herd. Soon they became separated by 100 miles on either side as sporting men and hide hunters rode the rails and branched out from small towns along the way to a deadly slaughter of all buffalo within that range.

In the next few years other railroads cut across the heart of the southern plains.   Farther north, this process delayed until after the Northern Pacific Railroad was able to cross the Missouri River at Bismarck in 1882.

The southern herd contained more buffalo, it was said, but on less territory than the northern herd, so they were somewhat more concentrated.

The still hunt” or “stand” developed there as the systematic way to kill more buffalo faster with newly-developed big guns, even for inexperienced hunters.

The secrets of making a stand were simple: Lie on a ridge above a herd of 50 or so buffalo, brace the rifle on a rock and fire away. Shoot the leaders if they started to run, and the others likely hung around sniffing at them, waiting for another leader until all lay dead.

Thousands joined the rush. Hide hunters took along a skinner or two, a wagon and set out independently. Or they worked for merchants in small towns who outfitted their own wagons.

Railroads also hired buffalo hunters to furnish meat for their workers laying track. One of these was William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, who killed 4,280 buffalo in 18 months for the Kansas Pacific Railway. Later the famous Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show on the road and across Europe.

Other hunters claimed kills of 2,500 to 3,000 during a single season—November to February. One reported he killed 91 buffalo in one stand and another, that he shot 112 head within a radius of 200 yards in less than three-quarters of an hour.

Much of the meat lay wasted, and often even the hides rotted due to the inexperience and carelessness of hunters. At the height of waste, in 1871, every hide sent to market represented no less than five dead buffalo, according to William Hornaday’s careful estimates, gathered through extensive interviews and correspondence with military men, fur traders, hunters, railroaders and frontiersmen.

 All too soon it was over. Last to go were a few scattered survivors that fled farther southwest to “wild, desolate and inhospitable” country inhabited only by desperate Indian bands. (For more details see Ch 10, Saving the buffalo, page 166, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains,”)

Site 6. Shadehill Buffalo Jump

Shadehill Buffalo Jump as viewed from the north side of the lake, damned in the 1950s. Photo by Vince Gunn.

For thousands of years before they had horses and guns, Native Americans in the northern plains had discovered the secrets of the buffalo jump. Research shows that a buffalo jump near Lethbridge, Canada, just north of the border, was used for over 5,600 years.

The rugged, broken terrain of the Great Plains was well suited to buffalo jumps. Grassy plateaus above steep, rocky cliffs often border rivers and creeks—as seen here above the waters of the Grand River.

This South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks sign describes the buffalo jump as well as 115 prehistoric sites and artifacts found in the area by archaeologists. However, the bones, once in two layers, one 12 feet thick and the other 4 feet on the side of the cliff, are gone, bulldozed off before the dam was built in the early 1940s and shipped to the west coast to make explosives in World War II. V Gunn.

Herds of buffalo frequently grazed on these plateaus above the cliffs. All it took was a stampede to drive them over the edge. And when panicked, wild buffalo stampeded easily, running faster and faster without regard to danger, the leaders unable to turn back.

The steeper cliffs you see ahead—when you look across the nearby bay to the left—was called a buffalo jump or mass buffalo burial by early homesteaders because of the bones exposed on its face. Large cedar trees fill the near draws, and on the other side of the trees are steep drop-off bluffs. A slump at this end shows where the bluff has fallen or was bulldozed off the top.

 At this point the river holds the combined waters of both the North and South Grand and is now flooded by Shadehill Reservoir, dammed during the 1950s. To your far right is the earthen dam that holds back these waters.

 Before the dam, the Grand River swung hard against the cliffs in flood stage, pulling down sections of the bank and its exposed buffalo bones—and revealing a fresh set of bones.

 Archer Gilfillan, author of the classic book Sheep, described this bluff in 1939:

: Buffalo jumps have three parts, a steep cliff with a pile of bones below and evidence of drive lines above. Here a flock of wild turkeys visit a memorial to Mountain Man Hugh Glass who was mauled by a grizzly near the Shadehill Buffalo Jump site in 1823. V.Gunn.

 “South of Lemmon, SD, 13 miles to Shadehill and then three miles west on a scenic road along the Grand River, is what has become known as the mass buffalo burial. This is a mass of buffalo bones exposed in a steep bank on the south side of the river. The river bank at this point is about 150 feet high.

 “The bones are in two layers. The first layer, 12 feet thick, is about 25 feet below the top of the bank. Beneath this 12-foot layer of bones is a four-foot layer of earth. Then comes a second four-foot layer of bones, the bottom of which is still 100 feet above the bed of the river.

 “The two layers of bones are exposed for approximately 100 feet up and down the river. Many of the bones are well preserved, although not fossilized. Horns and teeth are intact and there are large masses of almost indestructible stomach contents. All but the top layer of animals are crushed and smothered by those above.

 “Two estimates were made by old timers of the number of buffalo involved, ranging from 500 to 20,000. . . . Obviously any estimate can only be guesswork at present, because no one yet knows how far the mass of bones extends into the hill.”

The two bone layers were well known locally and clearly visible on the face of the bluffs. Dorothy Durick Kroft of White Butte told of going there on a grade school trip during the 1920s to see the bones. Neighbors used the buffalo skulls to decorate their flower beds.

Settlers in the area reported the site and hoped it would be investigated by archaeologists. Finally it was, but too late.

 During World War II there was great demand for bones in making explosives. People on the home front did what they could to help with the war effort. This is what happened to the Shadehill buffalo bone site, according to a neighbor, John//Don (dad) Merriman, who still lives south of the dam.

In the early 1940s, Merriman says, the land owner bulldozed off the top of the hill, uncovering the top layer of bones. He then scraped out that layer and the next, loaded and shipped them to munitions factories on the West Coast.

 This was called mining bones. A Canadian source says, “Many buffalo jump sites were vigorously mined beginning around the turn of the century . . . to the end of WWII. Much of the natural phosphorus extracted from the bones went for the manufacture of munitions.” Earlier,  bones also were used in fertilizer.

Renee Boen, Area Archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Rapid City field office, reports that experts surveyed the Shadehill buffalo bone site in 1946 and again in 1992. They found no bones, but only the slump of earth at the bottom of the cliff.

 After the dam, Shadehill Lake rose and covered the base of the bluff and heaps of earth. The only bones remaining lie deep under water, likely disintegrated over the years.

 So, unfortunately, without evidence of butchering it can’t be proved whether this was an actual jump site or not.

 Nevertheless, it illustrates the typical buffalo jump. The ideal site was a cliff that abruptly dropped off to a rocky bottom from a grassy plateau where buffalo commonly gathered to feed.

 If the drop-off was hid by a slight rise so stampeding buffalo did not realize where they were heading, all the better, we are told.

When Indian scouts found a sizeable herd of buffalo grazing on a flat above a cliff—and the wind was right—the band made plans to stampede them. for a drive.

No one knew their prey better than did these seasoned hunters of the plains. They sensed the best way to direct each hunt—how to entice curious buffalo closer to the edge, when to drive hard and where to hide in safety as they plunged over.

In this sketch ancient people set up tree branches with brush, rocks and clumps of sod to wave in the breeze, conveying a sense of motion as if people were waving hides along the drive lines. Courtesy of Imagining Head-Smashed-in book by Jack Brink.

Religious rites, traditional dancing and prayers played an important part in the hunts. These were people without horses or guns. They prayed for courage, skill and teamwork as well as cooperation from the buffalo.

When ready, the drive lines may have looked like this, directing the buffalo toward the low area and funneling them toward the drop-off. Drive lines sometimes stretched for miles above the jump. Courtesy of Shayne Tolman, Imagining Head-Smashed-in.

Women, children and dogs hid behind rock and brush piles at intervals on both sides of a wide drive line funneling toward the cliff, ready to leap out waving blankets at the right moment. Hunters unobtrusively formed a semicircle behind the herd.

Often the buffalo could be teased to the very edge of the cliff by young boys or a shaman. Dressed fancifully, perhaps in buffalo or wolf skins, the decoys attracted their attention and excited curiosity by prancing and bowing, alternately appearing and disappearing.

The closest buffalo began to watch and to approach. Then they eventually took chase, speeding toward the brink.

George Bird Grinnell wrote that the medicine man who brought the buffalo to the drop-off zigzagged this way and that, always attempting to lead, never to drive.

The driving began only after the herd had passed the outer rock piles, and the people had begun to rise up and frighten them,” he said.

Panicked, the buffalo stampeded toward the precipice in a great mad run, charging blindly after their leaders, gaining speed, faster and faster. With the mass of huge animals ramming against them, the leaders lost the power to stop. Too late they saw the danger—and plunged over the cliff, landing in a fatal pile-up on the rocks below.

Scrambling down the cliff, hunters with sharp spears, stone knives and clubs finished off any crippled animals below and began the work of skinning and butchering.

 At least a hundred buffalo jumps are identified in the northern plains. Likely thousands more are not researched or were mined of their bones before being studied.

 Some are still accidentally being discovered in road-building—as was the Vore Jump when Interstate I-90 built through northeastern Wyoming and unearthed a sinkhole filled with buffalo bones (I-90 obligingly jogged south at that point). Or in excavations, as was another in that area while digging a water hole for cattle.

Other methods of harvesting large numbers of buffalo before Native Americans gained the help of horses included the surround (confusing the buffalo into milling in a circle), the impoundment (fashioning a pen at the bottom of a slope), and pursuing buffalo with dogs or on skis in deep ravines during times of heavy snow.

Before they had horses, hunters often disguised themselves to get close enough for a fatal shot with bow and arrows. The skins of wolves cause little fear among buffalo. Painting by George Catlin.

Then in the mid-1700s came horses and guns, and the glorious days of running buffalo with fast horses in the manner described here during the final great buffalo hunts of the 1880s began. (For more details see Ch 8, Way of the Hunt, page 128, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains.”)

Side Trip A. Hugh Glass monument and Grand River Scenic Route

Many people like to stop at the nearby Grand River monument that marks the site near which Hugh Glass was left for dead after being attacked by a grizzly bear.

Hugh Glass was a hardy mountain man travelling up the Grand River with the Ashley and Henry fur trapping expedition party of trappers in 1823. You may have seen him in the Academy Award Winning the movie “The Revalent,”

While coming up the Missouri River on a keelboat, they had stopped at the Arikara villages at the mouth of the Grand River and traded for horses to travel overland.

The “Arikara” or “Arikarees,” known as Rees, seemed friendly but during the night they attacked the trappers, killing 13 men and wounding 10 or 11 more.

In retaliation the Army attacked and burned two large Ree villages.

Continuing up the Grand River, the trapping expedition was attacked again by Rees and two trappers killed. Shortly after, scouting near the forks of the North and South Grand in a heavily wooded area by the river, Hugh Glass was jumped by a grizzly bear.

The grizzly clawed and tore his body so badly that he lost consciousness and hovered near death. Major Henry left two men to guard him until his death and went on.

But Glass did not die. He lay unconscious with his terrible wounds as the days passed—with the two trapper guards growing increasingly anxious to get out of Ree territory. Finally, sure that he would die, they took his gun and knife and hurried off to join their party.

For five days he lay there. Finally he revived and in a nearly unbelievable feat of endurance, his leg badly maimed, he began to crawl back the way he had come. Wary of the vengeful Rees, he travelled only at night. Starving, he chased wolves away from a carcass, and caught small animals and birds to eat.

Finally he reached Fort Kiowa, near Chamberlain, 200 miles away.

There he joined a party of trappers going up the Missouri River, eager to return to trapping. For 10 years Glass continued to hunt and trap on the upper Missouri and then was killed by his old enemies the Rees as he crossed the ice on the Yellowstone River.

Legend has it that Hugh Glass swore revenge against the two trappers who deserted him, but forgave them when he met them again.

Below the monument and off to the right is the Shadehill Buffalo Jump.

“The steep bank just below this hill was the site of a large buffalo jump,” states the Forest Service map, “The Grand River and Cedar River National Grasslands: Land of vast horizons, rich history and enduring traditions.”

Also, on a high slope nearby, are the large faint letters “US-7th ”. Still visible, especially when the early spring grasses come.

They were carved by an Army detachment in 1891 on their way to protect settlers during a homesteader scare of an uprising over the death of Sitting Bull—which didn’t happen.

 Site 7. Buffalo Lore on the Blacktail Trail

Native Americans honor the buffalo as sacred in song, dance, stories, artwork and ceremonies. In traditional plains belief, buffalo gave themselves up willingly as food for the Native people and furnished many other gifts as well—shelter, clothing, medicine and tools. 

The Blacktail Trail—a 7-mile trail for walking, riding horseback or non-motorized vehicles—provides a nice place to consider the complex relationship between the buffalo and the Native people who lived and hunted here. CM Russell painting, ACM.

Blacktail Trail is a 7-mile loop for non-motorized use, constructed in 2004 by the Forest Service. Posts branded with deer antlers mark the trail. Interpretive signs give information on such topics as waterfowl, plants, wildflowers and the transition of this land from buffalo to cattle grazing.

A picnic spot and small fishing pond for youth offers a shady respite along the Blacktail Trail. FM Berg.

Spring-loaded gate keeps cattle out of picnic area. FMBerg.

A walk on the Blacktail Trail on a nice day offers a pleasant interval to consider the complex relationship between the buffalo and the Native peoples who lived here.

 From being a source of food to providing social and cultural inspiration and close connections to spiritual life, the buffalo traditionally figured into all aspects of Native lives and they lived together in harmony.

 Daily they thanked the buffalo and prayed for them to continue protecting them and helping them survive. Their close relationship with the buffalo is expressed by John Fire Lame Deer, “his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. .  . It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began.”

 Walking the Blacktail Trail you may see a sizeable cave or hole in the gumbo buttes.

Perhaps an aged Native grandmother told a creation story about this hole in the gumbo butte to children gathered around. Photo courtesy of Nicole Haase.

As you consider the lore and culture of the buffalo, we invite you to explore further. Many traditional stories speak to the mystery of the origin of life.

 A common belief held by many plains tribes is of the creation of humans and buffalo and other wildlife emerging from a cave or hole in the ground. Perhaps it has been told of this very cave by a medicine man—or maybe an ancient grandmother told it to a circle of small children gathered around her.

How the World Began

This is the way the world began. Long ago this land was quiet and still. No people or animals lived on these hills. Not even in the green valleys or along the creek beds. No snakes, no lizards; no eagles or hawks soared overhead. All living things waited far underground. They waited for the right time to come out.

 Great herds of buffalo lay there, all people, antelope, wolves, deer, rabbits, and even the little bird that sang ‘tear-tear.’  They waited as if asleep.

 Then one day Buffalo Woman opened her eyes. She stretched and began to walk slowly among the others touching them lightly. As she did they began to stir and stretch. She saw an opening with a great shining light and felt warmth streaming into the cave from the light.

She walked toward the ray of sunshine. A young cow stood up and followed her. Then came another buffalo and another and soon a great line of buffalo was going out of the opening into the bright, warm, grassy place that was the earth.

Next the people awoke and streamed out one by one, the men, the mothers carrying their babies and holding little children by the hand. Then came all the other animals and even the small tear-tear bird stretching its wings and flying toward the warming sun.

 They spread out in all four directions toward the horizon that circled all around. And the people saw that they were in a beautiful place—the right place—where they would live together with their relatives, the buffalo, and all would have plenty to eat.

Many different Plains tribes camped in these remote valleys to hunt buffalo and stayed to dry the meat and hides. Painting by CM Russell, ACM.

A traditional Cheyenne belief brought knowledge of how the sacred buffalo arrived on the plains.

In the old days, before people knew of the buffalo, a band of Native people camped near a spring at the head of a small rushing creek. Farther downstream the creek disappeared into a big hole in the ground.

The people were hungry and could find no food, not even a rabbit.

One day the leader said they must explore the hole and maybe they’d find something nourishing to eat. But who would go?

Three brave hunters offered to explore the hole. They knew it was dangerous—they might never return—but joined hands and jumped down into the deep darkness of the opening. When their eyes adjusted to the darkness they found a door and knocked.

An old Indian grandmother opened the door.

“Who are you and what do you want,” she asked.

They told her about the hunger of their people who were camped by the hole above and could find no food.

“Look out there.”

She pointed out her window and to their surprise they saw great herds of buffalo grazing contentedly.

 Then she seated the hunters and gave them three stone bowls of buffalo stew. They ate their fill of the delicious food, and still more meat remained in the bowls.

“Take these special (magical) bowls of buffalo meat back to your people,” the grandmother said.

 “Tell them I will send buffalo soon.”

 They thanked her for her kindness and helped each other climb back up the hole without spilling any of the buffalo meat from her bowls.

The people were delighted to see them safe and bringing food. Everyone in the camp ate hungrily. But still more meat filled the three bowls.

 The next morning they looked out of their tepees and saw vast herds of buffalo surrounding their village and covering the hills and prairies far into the distance. They knew this would be a good supply of food, shelter and clothing for their people.

 Gratefully they gave thanks to the spirit grandmother and the buffalo for their generosity.

The 7-mile walking trail circles around a high butte overlooking broken, rugged country and topped by native juniper trees. FM Berg.

Petroglyphs on the Hills

Special places in these hills are revered. Rock carvings and petroglyphs can be found on cliffs and higher buttes throughout the west. Traditionally this art holds mystical power.

Petroglyphs on the rocky crown of a hill somewhat farther north [only a few dozen miles], in North Dakota, feature the carved tracks of buffalo travelling across a high point, capturing the view of a wide area.

The little-known site, not far from where the last buffalo were hunted on Standing Rock, is still visited with ceremony and offerings by Native people familiar with it. Note: Since these petroglyphs constitute a sensitive site, visitors who wish to visit them are requested to contact the ND Historical Society or archaeologists of the Forest Service.

The Black Hills are perhaps most revered of all, with their crown jewel, Bear Butte—a volcanic eruption at the north gateway to the Hills. Bear Butte rises from the flat plain in the shape of a large slumbering bear. With its sweat baths and private trails, it’s a sacred place for plains tribes, the site of many pilgrimages.

For many Lakota the cave of creation is in the Black Hills. The pine-covered hills there are coursed throughout with large caves, some among the largest in the world, most of them interconnected through tight honeycombed passages. 

Because of her rarity and easy visibility at the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo, we have added this stop to our tour. If you are travelling east on I-94, we hope you will stop and see this miracle for yourselves—a heritage that may stem from the famous Big Medicine himself.

In all of these places Native Americans have come to pray, to perform traditional ceremonials and offer gifts of tobacco, dream catchers, feathers and medicine bags. (For more details and Buffalo traditions see Ch 7, Buffalo lore, page 112 in the tour companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats across the Plains,”) In these pastures and in others here, ancient spirits walk.

 Site 8. Buffalo Traits & Behavior

Older bulls often go off by themselves and may look lethargic. But don’t be fooled—buffalo bulls can turn on a dime, gallop 40 miles an hour and jump 6 feet over or into a fence, smashing it down. V Gunn.

There’s nothing quite like seeing live buffalo up close and personal—with sensible regard for safe distances of course.

While you journey throughout this region, you may notice private herds of buffalo belonging to area ranchers. A number of buffalo ranches operate within our tour area, but because they are not currently set up for entertaining tourists and for the safety of all concerned, as well as privacy and insurance issues, they remain anonymous at this time. However, you are welcome to stop along public roads to view them—quietly and with respect, please.

You may also see buffalo at closer ranges in Jamestown, N. D., or driving among them within their pastures in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near Medora, N.D. (check the prairie dog towns toward evening) and in Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

Buffalo are large, strong, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. Admire them from afar, but DO NOT APPROACH. Above all, DO NOT enter pastures with buffalo or drive through gates without permission.

Observe buffalo behavior

In most seasons the cows and bulls sort themselves out into separate male and female groups. Young bulls hang around with their mothers until two or three years old, when they join other males in small bachelor herds.

The Johnson herd visits a reservoir near Hettinger on its morning travels. FM Berg.

Buffalo cows are generally affectionate and attentive, fiercely protective of their calves. They are known for ease of calving, with relatively small newborns weighing only 30 to 50 pounds. When born, buffalo calves are red-gold with a thick growth of long woolly hair, which soon darkens, especially on the crown of their heads.

 They are born without a hump—but that doesn’t take long either. By three months the hump emerges and so do inch-long stubs of horns. Calves shed their baby coat after three or four months, to be replaced by a growth of fine, new, dark hair. As yearlings, their horns grow into straight, conical spikes, four to six inches long, and perfectly black.

 Calves can be playful. In his book The Time of the Buffalo Tom McHugh describes a group of seven exuberant calves.

Calves can be playful, but mothers are watchful and protective. The Oneida herd in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Oneida Tribe.

 

All of a sudden they perked up their tails, kicked their hind legs in the air and bolted across the meadow to engage in what looked like a game of tag. As they milled chaotically, one calf bounded out of the little band, inviting another to follow.

A companion came forth and the leader broke into a rapid gallop, challenging him to a race around the herd. Before long all seven were tearing about in a frenzy of activity, butting, kicking and bounding to and fro in carefree frolic.”

During this play the calves uttered “sounds as unique as they are difficult to describe.”

Buffalo bulls often display a strong sense of responsibility for protecting the herd, even today. When they feel threatened they often come together in a tight group with bulls on the outside, cows and calves inside.

Dominance issues

Buffalo are social animals with a great understanding of where they stand in the herd’s ranking—or pecking— order. Size makes a difference in ranking, but other traits matter as well, including strength, fighting skill, endurance, maturity and aggressiveness.

McHugh spent three months studying the hierarchy ranking through patterns of dominance and submission in a Jackson Hole Wildlife Park herd of 16 buffalo. He named each individual and recorded its rank through interactions with each of the others. Most of their interactions were peaceable, as all knew and understood their rank order compared to each of the others.

Often a dominant buffalo walked over and displaced subordinates at a pile of hay just by his presence, without force or threat. The low-ranking animals simply moved away while wending their way carefully through the herd to avoid other superiors, indicating submissiveness. McHugh noted all this was subtle and almost imperceptible, but universally recognized and respected by each animal.

About one-fourth of the interactions involved warnings and threats or actual use of force. This might involve a steady stare, swinging horns menacingly, or placing a chin on the rump of a subordinate to force it to move away.

The Standing Rock Tribal Herd grazes through a prairie dog town in the Porcupine Breaks or buttes. Photo courtesy of LaDonna Allard.

 

When threats failed, a battle might follow. McHugh says disruptions occur when new individuals enter the herd, calves are born, or young bulls begin to assert their increasing size and strength over formerly superior cows. Once hierarchy is reestablished, combat dies down as each individual recognizes and accepts its place in the herd.

During breeding season—also called the rut—fights are staged between big bulls as they move between herds and fight for dominance. In the wild this was the time when males and females came together in huge herds.

A challenging bull might grunt, snort, blow or growl to get a female’s attention and the defending bull roars back. The challenge of a bull buffalo is described as an impressive bellow or growl that closely resembles the roar of a lion.

Cows normally breed in August or September and calve from mid-April through June, with a gestation period of about nine months or slightly longer.

Under favorable ranching conditions today buffalo cows live to 20 or 25 years old, producing a calf each year. In the wild, such as in Yellowstone Park, they rarely live past age 15 and may calve only every other year.

Working them in the chute can be stressful for bison. Being in the chute alone is stressful, but so is being too closely crowded with several others. It’s important for handlers to work quickly and quietly. FM Berg.

 

Rare visit by students allowed in working pens. Oneida photo.

 

Buffalo coats and shedding

You may be surprised to see that by early summer a buffalo’s rich brown winter coat is faded to light brown, with patches of it flying in the breeze.

 William Hornaday described this shedding process in his 1889 Smithsonian study. “Promptly with the coming of spring, if not even the last week of February, the buffalo begins the shedding of his winter coat.

 “It is a long and difficult task, and with commendable energy he sets about it at the earliest possible moment. It lasts him more than half the year, and is attended with many discomforts.”

 The new hair grows so rapidly and densely “that it forces itself into the old, becomes hopelessly entangled with it, and in time actually lifts the old hair clear of the skin. The old and the new hair cling together with provoking tenacity long after the old coat should fall, and on several of the bulls we killed in October there were patches of it still sticking tightly to the shoulders.”

 The bull attacks clay banks. He rubs on trees. He fights. He wallows. “When he emerges from his wallow, plastered with mud from head to tail, his degradation is complete,” wrote Hornaday. “He is then simply not fit to be seen, even by his best friends.”

Bulls wallow to shed winter hair, to get rid of insects and to establish dominance. Here young bulls take their turn at a wallow. SD Tourism.

 

The bull’s one redeeming feature in all this rag-tag display is “the handsome black head, which is black with new hair as early as the first of May, preserving the bull’s majestic appearance throughout this long shedding effort.” And by fall a wondrous transformation takes place and the rich brown coat is luxuriant and fully grown.

 “The buffalo stands forth clothed in a complete new suit of hair—fine, clean, sleek and bright in color, not a speck of dirt or a lock awry anywhere.” 

New growth hair on the beard and front can reach amazing lengths. From his own hunt for Smithsonian museum specimens Hornaday reported: “I have a tuft of hair . . . which measures 22½ inches in length, from the frontlet of a rather small bull bison. The beard was correspondingly long, and the entire pelage was of wonderful length and density.”

 Be aware that buffalo are wild animals—as are lions and tigers born in zoos. They are not domesticated, even in the sense of undergoing a selection process to increase traits considered desirable and breed out undesirable traits, which passes down to offspring. Thus they are unpredictable.

In a seminar for tribal buffalo managers, Dr Trudy Ecoffey, InterTribal Buffalo Council Wildlife Biologist, cautioned the managers about getting up close. Her advice was “Don’t!”

 “It is difficult for people who are around buffalo often to tell when an attack will occur, and for the person who is never around them almost impossible.”

 The lumbering walk of the buffalo is deceiving, she said. They can turn, accelerate and charge in a heartbeat. A clue to their agitation is the stubby tail. When it hangs down and switches naturally, the buffalo is usually calm.

 But if the tail flips up and over the back he may be ready to charge. Other signs of anxiety are grunting or shaking the head. These actions should prompt people to give the buffalo plenty of room and preferably, to place something huge between them and the buffalo, warned Ecoffey.

 If you are not seeing any live buffalo, note that an indication of a buffalo pasture is usually higher fences. In the distance buffalo show up as wedge-shaped—with large extended forequarters and small, slender rear ends—compared to the blocky, rectangle-shapes of cattle and rounded curves of horses at a distance.

Buffalo prehistory

The first buffalo are believed to have arrived in North America about 43,000 years ago, crossing back and forth from Asia on the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska, along with mammoths, mastodons, the wooly rhinoceros, horses and camels. However, recent evidence suggests an earlier wave of bison may have come 195,000 to 135,000 years ago and then died out, as reported in 2017 by the University of Alberta, Canada.

 One giant bison species stood one-fifth larger than our modern buffalo with horns 10 feet across. Most of these large mammals—including all buffalo species except one—vanished around 9,000 years ago, a mass extinction that is still a mystery. Horses found a new home in Asia before dying out here, and returned later with Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors.

 Modern American buffalo developed into two subspecies—the prolific plains buffalo of the open country and the wood buffalo of the forests and far north. Thus under scientific classification, the American plains buffalo is listed as genus Bison, species bison, and subspecies bisonfor Bison bison bison. The wood buffalo is Bison bison athabascae.

 Although controversial for a time whether they were separate species, recent research at the University of Alberta conclusively shows genetic differences. Plains buffalo have a more rounded hump, with its highest point directly over the front legs, and more predominant hair character—large chaps, a full beard and neck mane and a clearly-defined cape.

 In contrast, the larger wood buffalo tend to have higher, often sharply-angled humps located farther forward on the body. They wear no chaps, sport only a thin pointy beard and skimpy neck mane and their less-defined cape blends smoothly back to the loins. Wood buffalo are usually a darker color.

 Conserving the buffalo: Public, tribal and private herds

How many buffalo were here when the first Europeans arrived? In the 19th century, naturalists estimated 60 million or more, based on an assumed range of 3 million square miles.

 However, range experts now put that number at closer to 30 million, given we now know their usual range was smaller, about 1.2 million square miles.

 Today, buffalo in the United States and Canada total nearly 500,000, about half of them below the international border and half above. As the railroads, highways, and cities grew in the Great Plains, the massive herds dwindled to an endangered level, prompting many to look at ways to save the buffalo.

 Today’s buffalo live in free-range herds within national parks, special herds through Indian tribes, and in private herds. A few live in zoos and other wildlife parks. These hardy animals live and thrive in all 50 states, every Canadian province and many countries throughout the world.

 Buffalo vs Bison? What shall we call them?

What shall we call this magnificent Monarch of the Plains—buffalo or bison?

 Call them what you are comfortable with, what you like best—and don’t feel guilty if that’s “buffalo.” It’s mistaken to believe they “should” be called “bison.

Professor Lott, who surely loved and understood the animal as much if not more than any other scientist who wrote of them, used both terms, almost interchangeably.

 “My scientist side is drawn to bison . . . scientifically correct and precise,” he wrote. “Yet the side of me that grew up American is drawn to buffalo—the name by which most Americans have long known it. Buffalo honors its long, intense and dramatic relationship with the peoples of North America.”

 As the grandson of the chief ranger, Lott was born on Montana’s National Bison Range and grew up there and on a ranch within sight of those buffalo. Later he specialized in Biology and wrote the book American Bison as a college professor.

 Indian tribes often use names in their own languages, such as the Lakota Tatanka and Pte.

 Hornaday, who comes in a close second in his passion for buffalo as a scientist—initially intrigued with them as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian and going on to devote most of the rest of his life to the species—calls them bison in his own writings, but he also wrote in 1889:

“The fact that more than 60 million people in this country unite in calling him a buffalo, and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary to apologize for following a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would.”

So don’t apologize if buffalo comes most naturally for you. Of course in scientific usage it is bison—as is bovine, equine and canine. But we don’t call the cow, horse or dog those names in normal conversation do we?

Buffalo actually comes from French fur traders who called the animals les boeufs (la buff), for “the beefs” meaning oxen or bullocks. It has a long history in North America dating from 1625 when first recorded—even before bison was used, in 1774.

 It even has a verb form—to buffalo (meaning to bewilder or overawe).

 Here where buffalo are raised we quite naturally prefer the term buffalo. It’s a good, solid, friendly yet respectful label, with no formality separating us from these majestic animals.  (For more details see Ch 6, Noble Fathers, page 92,and Ch 11, Buffalo Ranching Across America, page 186, from the companion book “Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains.”)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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